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What is the meaning of the phrase "sow wild oats"? Where did it come from?

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Three questions: (1) Did you try to figure this out before you asked here? (2) What did you find? (3) Is this general reference? –  J.R. Aug 27 '12 at 3:02
    
Read this: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/8724/… –  Carl Brannen Aug 27 '12 at 16:58

3 Answers 3

According to etymonline.com,

Wild oats, "crop that one will regret sowing," is first attested 1560s, in reference to the folly of sowing these instead of good grain.

It is less clear when the meaning changed to its current one. That is, currently, to "sow wild oats" normally means (for a man) to have sex with as many women as possible. "Wild oats" here specifically means hypothetical unwanted offspring.

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I've never thought of the current meaning as being ONLY about sex. It's more general than that — the carousing of youth — which usually includes sex, sure. –  Luke Baumgarten May 24 '13 at 18:56
    
The link in your full answer does state that there’s a strong sexual association here, too, because the phrase was often applied, in a more or less indulgent way, and always to young men, to what was politely referred to as youthful dissipation. The associations between male sexual activity and sowing seed are obvious enough. I've always thought of it as being primarily about sexual activity. –  TrevorD May 24 '13 at 19:08

Here's a decent primer on the idiom: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-sow1.htm

Wild oats are a weed whose seed looks a lot like certain cereal grains, and is thus hard to separate when sowing. Quoth the webpage:

So sowing wild oats was the archetypal useless occupation, indeed worse than useless. It’s not surprising that the phrase sowing wild oats was applied figuratively to young men who frittered away their time in stupid or idle pastimes.

So it's pretty much the same meaning as 1542, the first known usage, with perhaps a little more promiscuous sexual connotation these days.

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This would be more helpful if you could summarize the main points in that article here. –  Charles May 24 '13 at 20:16
    
Thanks. New to the site :) –  Luke Baumgarten May 24 '13 at 20:38
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Much improved. Thanks! And welcome to English Language & Usage –  Charles May 24 '13 at 20:42
    
Lots of word nerd fun so far –  Luke Baumgarten May 24 '13 at 20:43

Dr. Oz recently had a program addressing the top five energy sources. At the top was straw oat extract, that purportedly also enhances sexual drive. Is it possible that young men, out in the fields sowing wild oats, inhaled wild oat dust that made them especially randy?

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