In Collin's dictionary, to sow your wild oats mean

If a young person sows their wild oats, they behave in a rather uncontrolled way, especially by having a lot of sexual relationships.

What is the meaning behind the expression “sow wild oats”?
Where did it come from? Why was “wild oats” chosen?


2 Answers 2


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.

  • 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. May 24, 2013 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, 2013 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.

  • This would be more helpful if you could summarize the main points in that article here.
    – Charles
    May 24, 2013 at 20:16
  • 1
    Much improved. Thanks! And welcome to English Language & Usage
    – Charles
    May 24, 2013 at 20:42
  • Lots of word nerd fun so far May 24, 2013 at 20:43

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