Sowing Wild Oats

by Joanne Mason on July 1, 2017

Photo by Joanne Mason

Not long ago, a friend and I were walking through a local park and discovered some wild oats.

“Who sowed these?” my companion asked.

The literal answer was probably park employees or volunteers. But the idiom goes far beyond that.

To sow one’s wild oats is to behave recklessly, adventurously, or promiscuously.  It’s often used to describe young adults.

Example 1

Lenora is partying her way across Europe this summer.  I think she wants to sow some wild oats before she starts working at the family business this fall.

Example 2

Lou’s grandmother told him to date lots of people while he’s young.  She thinks if he sows his wild oats now, he’ll be better prepared for marriage later.

Young people have been sowing their wild oats for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first reference is from 1576, when Thomas Newton translated Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius’s Touchtone of Complexions:

That wilfull and vnruly age, which lacketh rypenes and discretion, and (as wee saye) hath not sowed all theyr wyeld Oates.

But Robert Hendrickson suggests that the phrase is much older than that, noting that Roman comic and playwright Plautus used in it 194 B.C.

No matter when it was first used, its origin appears to be straightforward.  Wild oats are weeds, ones you would be foolish to sow in your field. Here’s what The Western Producer had to say in a 2015 Weed of the Week column:

Hugh Beckie of Agriculture Canada’s Saskatoon Research Centre said wild oats remain of the 10 worst annual weeds that cereal producers must contend with worldwide.

Now that my local park has literally sown some wild oats, I’m curious to see what happens!  As for the idiom, I wonder if the definition has expanded to refer to a rite of passage in some cultures.  What do you think?

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