I've often wondered about the phrase "safe and sound." It seems like a common phrase that most English speakers understand, but it also seems quite old-fashioned to me. I read about it, and I understand it goes back all the way to the 14th century, but I've been unable to find its first use. Are people aware of any other popular usages over the years that would explain how it would remain commonplace after all these centuries -- despite "sound" not commonly meaning "whole" in modern times?

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    Time does not make handy expressions fade, but solidify. Half the meaning is in the sound of the expression. The only reason a stitch in time saves nine is the near rhyme, not a precise determination of preventive darning. Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:41
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    It's definitely the case that the idiom remains in use due in large part to its alliteration. As to origin, I wouldn't be surprised if there's a nautical factor somewhere in it's history.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 20:49
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    "Sound footing", and "of a sound mind", and "sound reasoning" still get used pretty often... between all the expressions I think people's sense of the word may have evolved from "whole" to "firm".
    – Tom22
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 22:04
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    or perhaps "solid"
    – Tom22
    Commented Apr 6, 2017 at 23:09
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    @Yosef Baskin: I wish I'd known that before I devoted so many hours to learning to use a needle and thread! I eventually realised for myself that darning your socks only makes them last twice as long, not nine times (so after allowing for the cost of materials, tools, and time, it's just not worth it! :) Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 0:30

6 Answers 6


It is the ancient and still used meaning of sound of free from injury, healthy that is used in the common saying "safe and sound":


  • "free from special defect or injury," c.1200, from Old English gesund "sound, safe, having the organs and faculties complete and in perfect action," from Proto-Germanic *sunda-, from Germanic root *swen-to- "healthy, strong".

Safe and sound:

  • Out of danger and unharmed, as in It was a challenging climb, so I'm relieved they got home safe and sound. [c. 1300 ]


Early usage examples:

1594, William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, act 4, scene 4,:

  • Fetch our stuff from thence: I long that we were safe and sound aboard.

1570 The Scholemaster: Or Plaine and Perfite Way of Teachyng Children:

  • Who, by his wisedome and honestie, by his example and authority, may be able to kepe them safe and sound, in the feare of God...

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) uses hole and sounde with the meaning of safe and sound.

OED - s.v. sound a. sound, healthy; safe, unharmed [See hole3 adj., sounde2 adv.]

(A Lexical Concordance to the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer)

  • Great answer! I wonder who in the 14th century "safe and sound" is attributed to, if not Chaucer. I've read a couple of sites that claimed the phrase is from 13th or 14th century.
    – user83454
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 0:27
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    In German, the word is still "Gesund" (healthy). The close relationship of English and German shows in yet another unexpected way.
    – DarkDust
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 9:41
  • Gesundheit directly calques into the English word "Soundhood". Gemütlichkeit is less friendly. "Amoodliness"? The Dutch word is better. Gezelligheid is Silliness/Seeliness. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 12:45
  • Whence does "calque" calque?
    – user83454
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 18:47

If you look in the dictionary, you'll find two definitions for the word 'sound':

Sound (2): "free from injury, damage, defect, disease, etc.; in good condition; healthy; robust"

As in 'sound in body and mind' which is used in a legal context for being healthy mentally and physically.

So 'sound' does really mean 'whole' it's just not that well-used. And words phrases stay in use arguably forever once they become idiomatic. You can see a few here that clearly have very little relevance now but are still widely understood today.


This explanation from here tells it all:

Meaning 'unharmed, free from injury,' this phrase was first recorded in Middle English around the beginning of the 14th century C.E. It dates to a time when the secondary definition of sound - 'whole, not damaged or injured' - was more commonly used. (It is this definition that gives us the expression of sound body and mind, which is still used today.) With this older meaning in mind, the phrase is actually very straightforward. In ancient or modern times, it was always a good thing to return to your loved ones with all of your body parts still attached and functional.

Sound is still used in the sense conveyed in this passage, but it is largely limited to this phrase. However, this definition remains on MW:

free from flaw, defect, or decay

If you want to go further in depth, this Wiktionary article describes the transition process much more:

From Middle English sound, sund, isund, ȝesund, from Old English sund, ġesund (“sound, safe, whole, uninjured, healthy, prosperous”), from Proto-Germanic *gasundaz, *sundaz (“healthy”), from Proto-Indo-European *sunt-, *swent- (“vigorous, active, healthy”). Cognate with Scots sound, soun (“healthy, sound”), Saterland Frisian suund, gesuund (“healthy”), West Frisian sûn (“healthy”), Dutch gezond (“healthy, sound”), Low German sund, gesund (“healthy”), German gesund (“healthy, sound”), Danish sund (“healthy”), Swedish sund (“sound, healthy”), Irish fétaid (“to be able”). Related also to Dutch gezwind (“fast, quick”), German geschwind (“fast, quick”), Old English swīþ (“strong, mighty, powerful, active, severe, violent”). See swith.

The following Ngram also shows that usage really jumped in the eighteenth century (if you're interested in prevalance):

Ngram snip

Don't fear: you can still clearly use the archaic form of sound and be understood.

Hope I could help.

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    Half a century ago, a solid foundation was less than three times as common as a sound foundation, but today it's nearly ten times more common. Usage has definitely changed over time with this one, but I can't see solid advice overtaking sound advice any time soon. Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 0:37
  • This is interesting. I wonder why "sound" peaked out around 1900? There must have been some event -- a famous poem, perhaps?
    – user83454
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 3:55

It's not only alliterative, it's one of the common pairings of words with Old English roots with similar words with Old French roots, part of the polyglot that followed the Norman invasion. New and novel, breaking and entering (though the words don't have precisely the same meaning), part and parcel. This is also common in law, as "legal doublets." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_doublet

  • Seems like people think "sound" comes from the German "gesund." Which I assume you're considering as Old English. (My favorite malt liquor, by the way.) Does that mean "safe" is Old French?
    – user83454
    Commented Apr 11, 2017 at 20:36

It is from the Catholic prayer used in Exorcisms.

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    Interesting but do you have any evidence or references ideally URLs @HMKA
    – k1eran
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 22:28

The phrase safe and sound was used before the 14th century and before Shakespeare. It is in the story of the prodigal son taught by Jesus in the Bible. Read Luke 15:27.

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    What Bible version?
    – Laurel
    Commented May 12, 2019 at 5:19
  • Luke 15:27 wasn't originally written in English, but Greek. The 14th century translation (the Wycliffe Bible): And he seide to hym, Thi brother is comun, and thi fadir slewe a fat calf, for he resseyvede hym saaf. Commented May 12, 2019 at 16:04

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