For want of a nail is a popular proverb that tells us how big things can get messed up because we didn’t pay attention to details. It is a 14th-century folk song that became a nursery rhyme over the centuries.
New proverbs were birthed from this one. The lyrics also changed, leading to more versions, but the intent/ theme remains the same. But do you know that the rhyme refers to a historical event? What do you think it is?
Get the lyrics and learn about the nursery rhyme's origins.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail
Download the printable PDF file of the lyrics from this link.
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Origins and History
For want of a nail, nursery rhyme has deep roots in the past. Even before the 14th century English version, there’s a similar proverb in Middle High German from the 13th century. It was first noted in Freidank’s Bescheidenheit, a collection of rhyming aphorisms, in 1230.
Another version of the proverb was written in Confessio Amantis by John Gower in 1390. This book was written in Middle English. Jean Molinet’s Faictz Dictz D had the proverb in Middle French in 1507.
The Works of Thomas Adams: The Sum Of His Sermons, Meditations, And Other Divine And Moral Discourses by Thomas Adams, a clergyman, had the proverb in French in 1629. It was a part of George Herbert’s Outlandish Proverbs published in 1640. In 1758, Benjamin Franklin wrote a rhymed version of the proverb in Poor Richard's Almanack.
You can see how the proverb continued to appear in the records in every century. This trend continued until 1925 when it was a part of Juno and the Paycock, a play by Seán O'Casey. In fact, it’s said the proverb was framed on a wall in the Anglo-American Supply Headquarters, London, during World War II.
The proverb has been a part of many literary works like Rage by Stephen King, Cannibals And Missionaries by Mary McCarthy, A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L'Engle (sequel to A Wrinkle in Time), etc.
It is said to be related to the Battle of Bosworth by King Richard III. Shakespeare’s play Richard III uses the proverb as a dialogue.
Yes. For want of a nail rhyme also found a place in songs. Todd Rundgren's album Nearly Human has a song titled song, The Want of a Nail. Naomi Shemer, an Israeli songwriter, translated a version of a song, HaKol Biglal Masmer, which means ‘All Because of a Nail’.