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The phrase itself is found in one of Emerson's essays:

"Blessed be nothing," and "the worse things are, the better they are," are proverbs which express the transcendentalism of common life.

I can't seem to find an origin for this proverb; there are only a few occurrences of it on Google. Most people take it to mean something along the lines of "Blessed is he who expects nothing..." My question would be: is this a common saying in English? would it be perfectly understood by your average citizen?

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  • Proverbs? According to who? Nov 3, 2022 at 16:25
  • There's a modern saying Less is more - primarily popularized in the context of "non-professional" writers, website designers, etc. who are particularly prone to include too much detail and too much typographic variability within a text presentation. But that's a modern "guideline", only really relevant now that technology allows everyone to be "amateur publishers". Nov 3, 2022 at 16:29
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    Poets write poetry and try their utmost to avoid clichés. This is not "an expression".
    – Lambie
    Nov 3, 2022 at 16:33
  • 2
    I've never heard either expression. Emerson was exaggerating if he called them 'proverbs'. Nov 3, 2022 at 16:43
  • I doubt it would be well-understood, and it's not a common proverb. Questions about literature meanings are better on Literature SE, but "how well known is X?" questions are probably too vague to be answerable. As a guide, think "what answer would I accept, and what kind of evidence would I want?"
    – Stuart F
    Nov 3, 2022 at 17:18

1 Answer 1

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Emerson was not the only nineteenth-century writer who described "Blessed be nothing" as a proverb. The same characterization appears in John Bascom, "The Natural Theology of Social Science," in Bibliotheca Sacra (January 1869):

To some minds there has seemed a profound loss in this gain [of human power through participation in society], and that the appliances and indulgences of society rob the individual of independence and efficiency, set him apart to some barren routine of labor, burden him with the toil of acquiring that which is only necessary as society deems it so, and makes him the prey of desires only the more numerous and ravenous as they are fed. Hence, in part, the proverb : Blessed be nothing. This impression arises from the false, poetical light cast over a primitive, barbarous condition, the euphemistic phrase, a state of nature, by which it has been characterized, and from the real discouragements which belong to transitional and incomplete forms of society, causing us, under the discomfort of present pain and the fret of immediate evil, to be willing to overlook the great dangers from which we are escaping.

Other nineteenth-century sources characterize the expression as an adage, as in a report by L.D. Brainard of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in Domestic Missions of the Protestant Episcopal Church (August 1861):

To be poor, at times, is very inconvenient; yet often it is safe. I believe I realize the force of that old adage now more than ever: "Blessed be nothing."

or as a maxim, as in A.S. Hooker, Great Earthquakes: Their History, Phenomena and Causes (1887):

The fruits of culture cannot reach maturity in the midst of disturbance, and he who expects to see the efforts of to-day overthrown and in ruins to-morrow, is apt to say cui bono—what is the use—shrug his shoulders, and settle down to the familiar maxim, "blessed be nothing."

or as an uncanonical beatitude, as "The Beauty of Plain Living" in The Critic (December 2, 1882):

Who would rule an imperium in imperio when pure autocracy is his rightful sway? The soul, prudent for its highest welfare, has a profound respect for that uncanonical beatitude, 'Blessed be nothing,' knowing that its only perfect luxury is to live independent of external luxuries, as its best philosophy is to be able to stand without the prop of any system of philosophy.

or as an old saying, as in "Books and Periodicals" in The Illinois Teacher (August 1860):

The old saying "Blessed be nothing" often comes to us when we have renewed evidence in hand of the skill of the counterfeiter in defrauding the unwary. Messrs. E. I. Tinkham & Co. do what they can [in Bank-Note Reporter] to protect the community by an excellent Detector, which will aid even the best-skilled eyes.

The expression appears in two forms in Robert Christy, Proverbs, Maxims and Phrases of All Ages (1888):

  1. Blessed be nothing. (Exclamation of a housewife on cleaning day.)

  2. Blessed be nothing when the tax-gatherer comes around.

It also appears, unadorned, in James Wood, Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources (1893):

Blessed be nothing. Pr[overb].


Claims about the origin of the expression

Different sources have suggested different origins of the expression. Two sources assert (without support) that the expression originated in the Arab world. From "The Banished Step-Daughter," a tale of Domestic Life," in the New York Journal of Romance, General Literature, Science and Art (September 1857):

Fortunately, I had no baggage to attend to, so at the first step of my journey of exile, I could say with the Arab—"Blessed be nothing."

And from "Notes from Washington County," in the [Albany, New York] Cultivator & Country Gentleman (January 19, 1871):

EDS. COUNTRY GENTLEMAN—Only those who have failed in balancing their ledgers New Year Day can appreciate the feelings of most framers in this section. This year many of us are ready to say, with the Arab, "blessed be nothing." Once more special farming has shown its cloven foot.

On the other hand, a response in "Questions in The Critic (May 15, 1886) suggests that it may have arisen from a witticism by Alexander Pope:

No. 1147.—Who knows anything about the authorship of 'See Naples and die' and 'Blessed be nothing'? It has been sought for in vain for months.

{'Blessed be nothing' may come from Pope's letter to Gay, Oct. 6th, 1727: 'Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed,' given in Bartlett's 'Familiar Quotations,' 8th edition, p. 292.}

And "Speech of the Hoosier"—included as an example of humorous oratory in Charles Wiley, Wiley's Elocution and Oratory: Giving a Thorough Treatise on the Art of Reading and Speaking (1869)—asserts that the expression originates in the Bible:

It is one of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and according to Scripture, which says, "Blessed be nothing, for a poor man is a reproach to any people,"—I am in favor of dividing the proceeds of public lands among the people until every man's sheep kines are full of pretentions; and taxes are annihilated, like the musquetoe under the fist of Davy Crockett :—which would you rather. Mr. Speaker, it is more blessid to receive than to give.

This actually is a corruption of the actual Biblical text (Proverbs xiv 34), "Righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people."


Early instances of 'blessed be nothing' in the wild

The earliest instances I have found of "blessed be nothing"—all of them from before 1850—treat it as an expression that is widely understood in their vicinity.

From "John C. Spencer," in the Boston [Massachusetts] Masonic Mirror (July 3, 1830):

The ambition—we will not call it moral turpitude—of this gentleman, has placed him and his proceedings before the public, in a very unenviable light. He stands before the public, says the Batavia Press, stript of the brief disguise which an official station had drawn around him—common honor and common honesty, as regards the politician, the lawyer, and the man, have been sacrificed at the shrine of personal ambition—and he is now "reaping the reward" of those who "sow the wind." Writhing under the lash of honest indignation and scorn, so far as character is concerned, he can realize the full force of the sentiment—"blessed be nothing." It will be seen by the following development from the Albany Argus, that the mighty crime of "disclosing the manner in which he obtained evidence before Grand Juries," with which he charges Gov. Throop, was committed by Mr. Spencer himself!

From "Pleasures of Failing," in the [Boston, Massachusetts] Monthly Traveler, or, Spirit of the Periodical Press (August 1830), reprinted from the New York Daily Sentinel:

Should there be a large fire, a failure of a bank, or any individual in extensive business, calamities more or less to be regretted by all, according to their respective business, the news, however, affects me as a mere circumstance, and I am sometimes constrained to break out, with "blessed be nothing, for I have not the least fear of losing any thing by sea or land;" in fact, we are in every respect safe characters, and from the picture I have drawn, no one can doubt the truth of the assertion, that "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth." I am now free from the noise and bustle of active life, no payments to make but to my own personal expenses, and at present where bank notices cease from troubling, and where bill books are at rest.

From Lyman Preston, "A Short Story of a Long Journey," in Stories for the Whole Family, Young and Old, Male and Female (Rochester, New York, 1841):

The first day was a ride of twenty miles across open and miry prairies one-half the time, and over corduroy bridges—the only traces of civilization that marked the deep forest, the other half. Spent the first night in a log-cabin, perhaps destined at some future period, to be a hotel. Here, owing to the scarcity of accommodations, it became a matter of discussion whether I should sleep with the driver, or he with me. At length it was determined that we should sleep together. On the part of the driver, the only objection to this arrangement seemed to be in the apprehension that I might take some liberties with a little package of money which had been entrusted to his care, to deposit in the bank at Columbus [Ohio]. For once, (blessed be nothing,) I had no occasion to sleep with my eyes open, for my pockets were above suspicion and above temptation. So I slept like a king ; that is to say, I slept with my eyes shut, with my lungs and pulse in motion, with my head one way and my feet the other.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays (1841):

Besides, your bravest sentiment is familiar to the humblest men. The poor and the low have their way of expressing the last facts of philosophy as well as you. "Blessed be nothing," and " the worse things are, the better they are," are proverbs which express the transcendentalism of common life.

From E.D.H. [George Burleigh, "The Loafer's Song" in Temperance Poems (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1844):

So up to the counter! what care we / If the saucy temperance folks should blow us, / They can't make us look any less than we be, / For we're small enough now as they'll see who know us, / And "blessed be nothing," we lose no fame, / And none can rob us of our good name.

From an untitled item in the [Pennsylvania] Miners Journal and Pottville General Advocate (November 9, 1844) [note that this example is garbled, owing to OCR problems and misreading across multiple columns of newsprint; when the host website at Pennsylvania State University becomes accessible, I will try to render the quotation here as it appears in the original source]:

The work lies idle, is becoming delapidated, and no rent accruing. At length some workman of the previous tenant, who knows of some partially worked breasts and of pillars that may be, robbed without jeoparding the gangway ; who hopes a few more yards will carry him through the fault, and who (blest be nothing!) under the worst circumstances, can only job the time he may expend in the experiment; applies for a lease.- The disheartened owner, smarting perhaps under recent demands ...

And from an untitled item in the [Springfield Illinois] Sangamo Journal (March 26, 1845):

The Register declines publishing the speeches of the loco foco members of Congress from this State, except when in the editor's opinion they are calculated to advance the interests of the party. So, whenever, we shall see one of their speeches in the Illinois State Register, it will be understood, that in the editor's judgment, it is worthy of publication. When their publication is refused, we shall of course form a contrary judgment. The Register complains that while the locofoco members seek to deprive him of support, they are very anxious to avail themselves of his labor,--which is money. We don't know but he is right. For ourselves we can conscientiously say, "blessed be nothing and we are not disappointed."

From anonymous, "Reminiscences of a Country Congregation in The [Boston, Massachusetts] Christian Parlor Magazine (August 1845):

Peter Fish, I said, was a man of property, and in his way very religious : when he came into possession of a handsome house and farm of his own, he said he thanked God for it; and when he let his fields lie untilled, or his crops waste for want of attention, and one year after another his possessions slipped away from him by his inattention, and he was at last compelled to see his fair acres passing out of his hands, while he sought a home for his family in a little dwelling that a few years before they would never have dreamed of occupying, even then did this easy soul lift up his eyes to heaven and say, "Blessed be nothing." And, verily, that was about all he had.

From John St John, A True Description of the Lake Superior Country (New York, 1846):

A pocket compass, and perhaps a pipe, completes your equipment, saving a few fish hooks and line. These are the really necessaries, though most travellers are not content with them. Experience, however, shows the necessity of being divested of everything which may be dispensed with; for, portages and journeys have to be made, in which every thing, even the canoe, must be carried for considerable distances, on which occasions "blessed be nothing." Habit, however, brings power of endurance which many would not believe, and I have seen a packer, himself weighing less than 145 lbs., who could take upon his back 200 lbs. weight, and make good time upon the portages.

From George Henry, Incidents in the Life of George W. Henry, Up to the 46th Year of His Age (Utica, New York, 1846):

But it finally turned out much like the fable of the two travelers, who found an oyster and submitted the question of title to an ingenious lawyer, they being unable to settle the point between themselves : the lawyer, you remember, took out his jack-knife, opened the oyster, swallowed the meat himself and gave each disputant a shell for his share, which was doubtless very satisfactory to both. So it happened with the debtor and creditor in this case, as well in regard to the brick house as the bell contract—they could both have said, in reference to the matter, "blessed be nothing;" and had I been called upon to give up the ghost just then, I could have said, like Job, that I came naked into the world, and naked I should go out.

From "The Election of a Senator" (a letter to the editor dated January 1847, in the Ypsilanti [Michigan] Sentinel (February 10, 1847):

Twenty-seven distinct ballotings were had without a result upon which the harmonious Democracy could agree. But when was there ever an emergency known to occur which did not seem to come along, just to accom[m]odate some obscure genius, impatiently waiting to meet it? Great crises require great capacity, and tactics must be changed to suit events. So, in the present case, the emergency came and the genius in the person of ——— step[p]ed forth too meet it. The Whigs had in the meantime, in a blessed-be-nothing state of feeling, met in caucus and resolved to give our excellent Senator, Mr. Woodbridge, their approbation by casting their votes unanimously for him. They had performed a grateful duty and were sleeping on quiet consciences.

From "A Chapter About Money, Fourierism, Etc.," in The [New Haven, Connecticut] Evergreen, or Church-Offering for All Seasons (1847):

A man of the most abundant wealth may live in greater poverty than his poor neighbor, who earned the dollar yesterday that he is obliged to spend for his support to-day. His cares and his vexations and his troubles are ten-fold greater than those of him who has nothing to care for beyond his current wants. Most have heard of the poor man who exclaimed, "blessed be nothing," as he saw, through the window of his hovel, his affluent neighbor attending to his many out-door cares, amidst the peltings of a bitter storm. True, there might be a change in affairs. The poor man's trouble may come in a sunny day, and be only the more severe for his present comfort.

From "Sunday in the Country," in Sartain's Union Magazine of Literature and Art" (New York, April 1848):

The requisite offices about the house and farm are dispatched as summarily as may be ; and the family—including old grandmother and baby and all—set off gor church, after covering up the fire, and putting a fork over the latch—a precaution which makes it necessary for one of the boys to get out of a window. This is merely a hint to those who may call, that the family is absent; not to guard against thieves, since the windows are all unguarded. How much trouble is saved by having little to lose! "Blessed be nothing!" we often had reason to exclaim.

From "[The Fence Around City Hall]("The Election of a Senator" (a letter to the editor dated January 1847, )," in the Cambridge [Massachusetts] Chronicle (November 1, 1849):

I perceive, by an advertisement in the last Chronicle, that the fence around the City I Hall, is for sale. I am not in want of this or any other fence—thanks to my poverty, (blessed be nothing!) —but as this opportunity is so favorable, and the fence is such a capital one, I cannot resist the desire of calling the attention of those who have lands they wish to enclose, to the fact that it is on the market.


Conclusions

Although the origin of "Blessed be nothing" is unsettled, it certainly was in use by the summer of 1830, as unrelated instances of it appear at that time in publications in Boston and New York City. This is eleven years before the expression appeared in Emerson's 1841 essay "Circles," so Emerson was not speaking fancifully when he referred to it as a proverb—although we might today use a term such as adage, maxim, aphorism, or saying in place of proverb. I think the likeliest origin of the expression is simply as a bit of folk wisdom observed on the not infrequent occasions when possessions seem to be more of a burden than a benison.

I was struck by the occurrence of the expression at widely distant times as the punchline of a moralizing anecdote involving a poor man sitting snugly in his hovel while his rich neighbor struggles outside in a storm trying to secure his exposed possessions. The earliest instance of this anecdote that I found is from 1847—long after the oldest instances of the bare-bones expression "blessed be nothing" itself—but it recurs in William Halsey, "Daniel Talmage of Hay Ground," in Sketches from Local History (1935):

Daniel Talmage of Hay Ground was a man very moderate in disposition, and believed in taking life easy. One stormy day in the winter, Daniel saw 'Squire Maltby Rose going down to Mecox to fodder his cattle. Daniel watched him for a while and then said: "Blessed be nothing, for I can sit by my fireside in comfort, while 'Squire Maltby, with all of his property, is obliged to go out in this storm and feed his cattle."

In Halsey's book "local" refers to Bridgehampton in Suffolk County, New York.

The fourteen pre-1850 instances of the expression cited above are concentrated in the New England and the Mid-Atlantic states of the United States five from Massachusetts (one by way of New York), four from New York, two from Pennsylvania, and one from Connecticut, plus a couple of outliers from Illinois and Michigan.

A century later, Henry Holmes, The Road to Courage: Sources of Morale in Men and Nations (1943) refers to it as "the old New England saying, 'Blessed be nothing!'" but it seems as likely to have originated in New York as in Massachusetts. Perhaps Holmes simply means that it was still current in New England in the 1940s (but not elsewhere), or perhaps he was influenced by Emerson's famous invocation of it, Emerson being a native and longtime resident of Massachusetts.

That the expression has been in use in U.S. English for many years is evident from this Ngram chart:

This chart indicates that the expression was most popular during the period from 1840 to 1875, but that it remained in use for decades after that. Indeed, a Google Books search for the period 1991–2019 turns up original matches (that is, matches unrelated to references to Emerson) from as recently as 2013. For example, from William Morse, A Mix of Years [snippet view] (1998):

Each month Charlie's Social Security check went for food and rum in about an even split, and he and the rooster were happy. They lived an Edenic, worry-free life; one that can best be summed up by an expression which my father often used: "Blessed be nothing."

From Sarah Werner, The Darkest Hour Is Just Before the Dawn: A Glimpse of the Human Side of Mission Work (2005) [snippet view]:

"But you haven't said a word about it." Bob gazed at her. She'd lost everything.

She shrugged. "I guess all I can say is—Blessed be nothing!"

And from David Anderson, Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul: The Passage to New Life When Old Beliefs Die (2013):

This happiness has nothing to do with your circumstances. Mother Teresa, living and working in what you and I would consider hell, somehow knew she had a happiness that could not be taken away. Or as my Great Plains mother used to say, "Blessed be nothing."

Nevertheless, I think the vast majority of people in the United States today have never heard the expression "Blessed be nothing," and if presented with it, some of them might interpret it as some kind of rude retort to the much more popular (but unrelated) expression "Blessed be."

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  • I hadn't seen the expression "blessed be nothing" until now, and without other context, I would have assumed it to part of a parody "prayer" by an atheist.
    – Dan
    Dec 5, 2022 at 23:49

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