What Is The Origin Of The Phrase "To Sow One's Wild Oats"?


2 Answers

Julii Brainard Profile
Julii Brainard answered
Wild oats are actually the Avena fatua plant. This is a common wild weed in Europe. It resembles domesticated oats (the ones we grow, harvest and eat). It is difficult to eradicate and spreads quickly in agricultural fields, hence it's reputation as a pernicious organism.

Sowing Avena fatua could therefore mean to cast about wildly to see what develops.

Avena fatua also has a reputation as a traditional herbal remedy, specifically to increase one's sex drive. So sowing one's "wild oats" obviously has quite a different meaning in that context, mostly related to the strong impulses (including sexual) of youth. Just having the reputation as a strong aphrodesiac may be where the saying came from. It is believed to date back to at least Roman times.

There is no decent quality evidence to verify that extracts of Avena fatua are actually any good at increasing one's sex drive.
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
I agree.  The fact wild oats are a weed, alone, does not explain why oats rather than another weed seed was adopted to this common expression.    However, I may be able to shine some light on why oats were once considered an aphrodesiac.

It's been long known and observed that when idle horses eat oats they get a natural "high" and become more energetic, playful.  Some breeds of horses become noticeably harder to control when fed oats.  Playful horses can kick pretty hard.  I'm not sure if this effect is stronger with wild oats, but to this day oats are still considered an essential part of the diet of racing and breeding horses because of their perceived ability to arouse them to action.

It seems to me rambunctious, hard to control, and sex-seeking adolescents find a natural metaphor with such behavior.  Although many animals show similar excitability under the influence of a favorite food, horses historically were very common throughout most of European history, including the age of Rome.    The comparison would have been natural, especially when the "weed" was presumed to have some sort of additional properties other than food.    The aphrodesiac properties were likely presumed since uncontrollable behavior in adolescents was linked to sexual drive long before Freud.

The main point to make though is that there are several subtexts to the meaning and not just one.

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