Very few English-speaking people get through their lives without hearing the phrase, “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” It is a favorite for parents all over the world when their kids are upset about trivial things.
It is an odd saying that many people don’t understand, even though it is quite old, so what exactly does it mean and where does it come from?
Meaning of Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk
Have you ever dropped a bottle of milk and watched it spill all over the floor? Did you try to scrape it up and put it in your coffee or cereal, or did you grab the mop? I’m guessing the latter. Once spilled, milk cannot be reused.
Firstly, nobody has floors that clean, and secondly, milk is white, so even off the cleanest floor, you’d be able to spot every speck of dirt in it. Yuk!
So, you mop it up and go about your day. Nothing you can do about the loss. And that’s exactly what this age-old saying is telling us. The milk is a metaphor for the things that happen to us that we cannot change, and the expression urges us not to cry (or worry) about things we can do nothing about.
Some examples of when this expression might be used are as follows:
- When something is broken beyond repair although you have done your best.
- When something happens, you cannot change it no matter what you do.
- When something happens to make your plans impossible.
- When something is lost and cannot be found.
The expression, don’t cry over spilled milk has 2 common variations. People either say, “Don’t cry over spilled milk” or “There’s no use crying over spilled milk.” These both have the exact same meaning – it’s useless to get upset or worried about something you can’t change.
You may also see the word “spilled” spelled differently – this is simply a matter of geography. In the US, it is spelled “spilled,” and in UK English, they use the word “spilt.” There is no difference in meaning.
There are also some similar phrases that have the same general meaning, such as “What’s done is done,” and “Don’t dwell on the past.”
History of the Expression of Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk
There are a few theories about where and when this expression started, and there are a few written examples of it going back almost 400 years. Back then, it was said, “There’s no weeping over shed milk,” but the meaning is the same.
Like most dairy-related expressions, this one likely comes from a time when most families were quite self-sufficient, owning their own milk cow and other animals.
Because people mostly provided for themselves, using their produce to trade for things they couldn’t make, each item was precious.
Dropping a bottle of milk or letting a bag of grain go off could severely set a family back, making the difficult winter season much harder and more dangerous for them.
In these times, there may indeed have been drama over spilled milk, creating an opening for this expression to become popular among wealthier people who were not in such dire straits.
Another theory about the origins of this expression is that it comes from when people used to believe in fairies. Milk or cream was left out as an offering to the fairies for good luck and harmony, and spilling some milk was seen as an involuntary offering, rather than a tragedy.
The expression “Don’t cry over spilled milk” is quite old, going back almost 400 years in recorded history, and means that you shouldn’t dwell on things you can’t change. It likely comes from a time when owning a dairy cow was very common for middle-class families, and milk was a valuable trading substance.
If someone tells you that there’s no use crying over spilled milk, they just mean that you shouldn’t waste time and energy stressing about something you can’t change. All you can do is move on and deal with the situation as best you can.