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Can you think of any sayings about change, especially ones expressing

  • how a big change must begin with a little change?
  • how certain institutions, ideas, or God remain eternally unchanged?

Note: the above is an edited version of @lovespring's question. See edit history for original question.

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I think "u" could at least try to write "proper" English. This is not chat where extreme brevity is excusable, since it's a fast medium. You have all the time in the world for properly formulating and writing a question, so why the rush? Or the sloppiness? <end of rant> Sorry all, but "u" makes me cringe whereever I see it. I usually stop reading right then and there. – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 16 '11 at 11:00
"you" and "u" in one paragraph just smells of sloppiness. And, well, "u" just gets me riled. So, both together... no, @lovespring, you're not required to (be able to) write like Robusto. But... you did learn to capitalize the first words of sentences? And that "I" is always capitalized? Of course, I have no idea about the quality of English courses on Mars... ;-) – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 16 '11 at 13:20
I agree with @jae. It's not even conceivable that someone learning English would be taught "u" over "you". – Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 14:05
@Cerberus: "u" is not informal, "u" is just bad, m'kay? I can tolerate it in chat (as I mentioned), but when you have time, no can do. And... how does one learn English without both books and teachers? Really, I'm curious. – Jürgen A. Erhard Jan 16 '11 at 19:24
@lovespring: It's considered rude when you're asking for free help, and when you have all the time in the world you write out those two letters "y" and "o". It gives the impression -- whether true or not -- that you do not really respect the people to whom you're talking enough to bother writing properly. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 16 '11 at 22:05

13 Answers 13

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Something like these?

  • “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow”
  • “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
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I do like the oak/acorn proverb. The oldest recorded variant I think is in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, 1374: "as an ook cometh of a litel spyr". There is a lovely variant in D. Everett's The Columbian Orator, 1797: "Large streams from little fountains flow, Tall oaks from little acorns grow." – Orbling Jan 16 '11 at 13:08
Also, Great oaks… – Jimi Oke Jan 17 '11 at 1:26

It's not yet a saying per se, but the so-called butterfly effect is a modern theme popular in certain circles and commonly referred to in modern speech.

So, people sometimes say things like “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil might set off a tornado in Texas”

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I would have mentioned the butterfly effect if no one else did by the time I got around to it. – John Y Jan 16 '11 at 16:55
But it's the Chinese butterflies that have the greatest effect ;) – RolandTumble Feb 17 '11 at 0:09
I am not sure about China, I always see Brazilian butterflies used in examples. – F'x Feb 17 '11 at 9:24
The original butterflies were Brazilian, from a paper of Lorenz given in 1972 at the AAAS annual meeting: ("Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"). But Google Ngrams shows that the task is also being outsourced to Chinese butterflies. – Peter Shor May 27 '11 at 9:51

The type of saying I think you’re looking for is called a proverb. There are plenty of online resources for those; for example, this list on Wikiquote.

On the subject of change, you might like the saying:

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Even in English speech or writing the original French is used, or it can be rendered in English as:

The more things change, the more they stay the same

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+1 For proverb, as no one else saw fit to mention it yet. – Orbling Jan 16 '11 at 14:51
I vehemently disagree that "even in English speech or writing the original French is used". I'm not sure I would have come up with the correct English translation if you hadn't posted it. If you're writing in English, best stick to writing in, well, English. – Marthaª Jan 17 '11 at 16:12
@Martha: Maybe that's a geographic thing, then; in the UK a lot of people will be taught some French at school (as it's reasonably likely to be of practical use, given how close we are to France and how easy it is to get there), so a basic familiarity with the language is widespread (though by no means universal). I imagine the situation is similar in Canada, though I'm not sure how widely taught French is in the predominantly English-speaking regions. But I accept that in areas where French education is not commonplace, using French sayings in English writing may not be de rigueur... – Brian Nixon Jan 17 '11 at 18:07

There's also the snowball effect.

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This implies something that gathers up momentum and size in the meer act of moving at all. I can't really tell if that's what the OQ was after or not. – T.E.D. Oct 21 '11 at 18:05

Small streams make large rivers


A small step for man ...

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Here's another answer: The "for the want of nail..." proverb, which is somewhat related to FX_'s answer, the Butterfly Effect, in that both proverbs emphasize the power of insignificant things to cause momentous changes further on. However, in my observation, the Butterfly Effect is mostly referenced neutrally, and a few times even positively, say for example when describing the power of small act of kindness to enable the performer to reap larger "karmic" rewards later. On the other hand, the "for the want of the nail..." story usually has uniformly negative connotations, in emphasizing the role of unpreparedness in causing momentous tragedies in ventures of a complex nature.

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  • Penny-wise and pound-foolish
  • A stitch, in time, saves nine
  • An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

    Based on the edited version of this question, here are some more:

  • Rome wasn't built in a day

  • "It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants" - New Testament Bible reference
  • "Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant" - lyrics in the song High Hopes about an ant moving a tree
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Yeah... "planting a seed" is a common expression meaning that you make a subtle change (the insertion of a seed, for instance) that will, over time, turn into a big change. (like an enormous tree) You have to be careful, though, because it also has a vulgar sexual connotation. – advs89 Feb 17 '11 at 2:44
@advs89 with other citation and context, I agree. In this case, with an Bible citation, it's very unlikely. +1 for the edit. – Fabricio Araujo Jun 25 '13 at 20:24

Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, will alter the face of the world.

Taken straight from the Berlin Wall

Viele kleine Leute, an vielen kleinen Orten, die viele kleine Dinge tun, werden das Gesicht der Welt verändern.

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3145/2982009459_3e6cdf7241_z.jpg?zz=1enter image description here

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how about:

a stitch in time saves nine

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I don't know, this is more about timeliness than change... – F'x Jan 16 '11 at 14:22
  • Look after the pennies the pounds will look after themselves.

  • When a butterfly flaps its wings it creates a hurricane in the pacific.
    Or at least emacs users worry about their memory being changed.

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At risk of sounding cynical, "changing things so everything stays the same" is a phrase I've read and heard a few times and which I find very interesting. It tries to convey the feeling that we strive to change so many things in the world as a way to preserve some other things as they are.

This connects with your comment that certain things remain eternally unchanged.

See here for an example.

Edit. The original source is apparently Il Gattopardo.

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This one is "English", i.e. Scottish:

Many a Mickle Makes a Muckle

There's even been a question asked on it.

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There are several:

  1. Little drops of water make the ocean big

  2. Small strokes fell great oaks

And one I came across here in English.SE:-

3) Many a mickle makes a muckle

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