Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Episode 173: A Watched Pot Never Boils Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 173: A Watched Pot Never Boils

Record Date: November 10, 2022

Air Date: November 16, 2022



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

I remember when I was a kid and I knew we had a cool field trip coming up the next day like going to Wet N Wild or Six Flags in Dallas. The night before I couldn’t sleep and it just made the wait that much longer. Sometimes as an adult I have had that same feeling waiting for Friday afternoon to finish up so I could leave work and start my weekend. But most recently, I had it standing in my kitchen, getting ready to boil some plantains so I could make patacones. And as I stood there, staring, I thought of the old phrase, a watched pot never boils. 


Let’s start off with our definition. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a watched pot never boils means: 


time feels longer when you're waiting for something to happen.

End Quote

This phrase is widely attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Many internet sites list this as coming from Poor Richard’s Almanack, which Franklin wrote for over 25 years under the pseudonym, Richard Saunders. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t. An almanac, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is:


An annual table, or (more usually) a book of tables, containing a calendar of months and days, with astronomical data and calculations, ecclesiastical and other anniversaries, and other information, including astrological and meteorological forecasts

End Quote

Almanacs were incredibly popular in colonial america. Poor Richard’s Almanack was the origin of many phrases that survive today, like the phrase


There are no gains without pains

End Quote

Today we’d say it in its shortened form, no pain, no gain. There are several more and our Patrons of any level can hear more about some of those phrases in our behind the scenes segment. 

Despite many phrases originating with Poor Richard, this one was a later work. In the early days of America, Benjamin Franklin was sent as the first American diplomat. Here’s a quick rundown of the time from the United States Department of State


Franklin served from 1776 to 1778 on a commission to France charged with the critical task of gaining French support for American independence. French aristocrats and intellectuals embraced Franklin as the personification of the New World Enlightenment. His likeness appeared on medallions, rings, watches, and snuffboxes, and fashionable ladies adopted the "coiffure a la Franklin" in imitation of the fur cap he wore instead of a wig. His popularity and diplomatic skill—along with the first American battlefield success at Saratoga—convinced France to recognize American independence and conclude an alliance with the thirteen states in 1778. Franklin presented his credentials to the French court in 1779, becoming the first American Minister (the eighteenth century American equivalent of Ambassador) to be received by a foreign government. Franklin’s home in Passy, just outside Paris, became the center of American diplomacy in Europe. When Thomas Jefferson succeeded Franklin in 1785, French Foreign Minister Vergennes asked: “It is you who replace Dr. Franklin?” Jefferson replied, “No one can replace him, Sir; I am only his successor.”

End Quote 

Jefferson, you may note, went on to become the 3rd President of the United States less than two decades later. Franklin, despite some people’s misunderstandings, never served as a President of the USA. 

But back to our phrase, it was first written down in a 1785 report to King Louis XVII of France. The report was on Franz Mesmer’s work regarding animal magnetism. Hypnotism was a modification of animal magnetism, and Mesmer is the namesake of the English word “mesmerize”. 

Here is the phrase:


Finally another Breakfast is ordered. One Servant runs for fresh Water, another for Coals. The Bellows are plied with a will. I was very Hungry; it was so late; "a watched pot is slow to boil," as Poor Richard says.

End Quote

So our phrase did come from Benjamin Franklin, though it wasn’t from Poor Richard’s Almanack. But I can see the confusion, as Franklin did quote his pseudonym as the originator. Maybe the most interesting thing it the original quote was “a watched pot is slow to boil”. But I didn’t find any examples of that form used in print. I’m sure there are some, but overwhelmingly everything I found was “a watched pot never boils”. 

That first usage was in 1785, so let’s look at some other uses of the phrase. 

Bell’s Weekly Messenger out of London - Sunday 24 July, 1808


If I had a laborer who was to become a notorious drunkard, I would dismiss him, because it would be my duty strongly to shew my disapprobation of so beastly a vice; but after a good deal of observation, I am thoroughly convinced that, as a ‘watched pot never boils’, so a watched penny never breeds. 

End Quote

The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer - Volume 22, April 1899

This same play found another run in London in November of 1955, as I found mention of it again in the Manchester Evening News on 5 November. But there are more than just this play that continue to use this phrase. We’ll get to those right after a quick thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon.

You can help support this educational artform and get awesome perks along the way! Tiers start at $3 a month, which get you our polls and community-only discussions, early access to the podcast, and the behind the scenes video for each episode so you can watch along as we make the show. 

At $10 you’ll also get original digital artwork from Shauna once a month featuring exclusive art about an idiom or other turn of phrase. At $15, you’ll also get personal on-air recognition like Pat Rowe does every episode. And of course huge thanks goes to the top spot among our Patrons, our Dean of Learning, Mary Halsig-Lopez. Thank you so much to Mary and all of our patrons. 

If you want to help create Bunny Trails week after week, whatever your budget, we are bunnytrailspod on Patreon. 


Modern Uses

I did run across two songs called a Watched Pot Never Boils, but neither of them were safe for work enough for me to include here. But if you want to hear them yourself, you can just search watched pot never boils song on youtube and they should pull right up. 

A Watched Pot Never Boils is a watercolor on paper painting by Lau Tir out of Italy. It was created in 2012 that features an eclectic, abstract style resembling a pot that is definitely boiling over. With something.

A Watched Pot Never Boils: Blank Notebook To Write Down Your Favorite Pasta Recipes Paperback – This was released on August 14, 2019 by My Pantry Press

I don’t think there is any need to read the synopsis as it’s basically all in the title. This is a book of 120 blank recipe template cards so you can write out your favorite recipes in one book

A Watched Pot Never Boils is a piece written Dr. Ashley Howard and published on the National Museum of American History website on August 26, 2020. I’ll read the opening paragraph:


With the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest, historians, educators, and the general public once again fixated on the “long hot summers” of the 1960s. Where every year, for the latter half of the decade, America was embroiled in widespread violent protest. While this keystone era certainly provides some background for the current historical moment, it is the in-between times which offer greater context to the continuous cycle of oppression, protest, and violence in American history.

End Quote

The article continues with several examples of violence and systemic discrimination against people of color. She highlights this as the boiling pot and implores readers to acknowledge and address the significant racial disparities in America, and thus, bringing attention to the pot to keep it from boiling over.

Next up is a 2021 book called A Watch Pot Never Boils by the mononymous author Special. Here are a few words from the author on the Barnes and Noble website. 


Hi my name is Special, this is my first Book in which l invested all my thoughts and feelings for what I saw as theraphy (sic). I found out that I've never dealt with the trauma i was keeping locked up and it was becoming overwhelming and so l turned to putting my forum of healing.

End Quote

Watched Pot is a seemingly unreleased film from Forrest Grant Davis. I ran across the trailer on his website, but I have no idea what the film is about. But you can see the trailer on Patreon click on the link in the show notes. 

Wrap Up

And finally, I’ll take us back just a few years to 2019, when Michael Stevens (known by some a Vsauce), on the Youtube Channel D!NG, made a 51 minute video where he filled up a large pot of water and then watched it boil. 51 minutes. 

That’s dedication. It’s important to remember this is an idiom, which means it is not meant to be taken seriously. But the comments on that video talking about “debunking” the myth make me wonder if some people really believed it. Which is wild to me. It’s worth noting that Benjamin Franklin was something of a scientist himself, and he would have known that observing a pot would not prevent it from boiling. It simply makes the time seem like it is passing ever. so. slowly. 


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us on social media where we are @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website


It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, assuming you could go back in time to spend a few hours at one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, during its peak time, which one would you choose?

The top three were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, followed by the Temple of Artemis, and the Great Pyramid of Giza.


I definitely went with the Hanging Gardens. When I travel, I enjoy going to botanical gardens in other cities, or just exploring the native plant life. I love seeing nature thrive and learning about new flora. 

A close second for me would be the Temple of Artemis, mostly because of the Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium’s purported description:


I have seen the walls and Hanging Gardens of ancient Babylon, the statue of Olympian Zeus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the mighty work of the high Pyramids and the tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the temple at Ephesus rising to the clouds, all these other wonders were put in the shade.

End Quote 

Shauna, what did you go with?


As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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