'Don't Cry Over Spilt Milk'

26 January, 2019

Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

Okay, who here has never made a mistake?

The answer is, of course, no one.

Mistakes are not just a fact of life, they are an important part of the learning process. However, regretting our mistakes day in and day out is not healthy. We need to learn from them and then move on.

But do not take my word for it. One of America's most famous and influential writers and thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said it much better than I can.

Milk spills from a protesting farmer's tanker truck in Northwestern Spain, on February 15, 2016. (AFP Photo)
Milk spills from a protesting farmer's tanker truck in Northwestern Spain, on February 15, 2016. (AFP Photo)

Before we hear his famous statement, let's talk about some words he used in it.

When Emerson says "blunders and absurdities," he simply means mistakes. To do something filled with peaceful feelings is to do something "serenely." However, to be "encumbered" is the opposite. This means to be heavy and loaded down with things. To Emerson, those "things" are past mistakes, or as he calls them "your old nonsense."

Now, here's Bryan Lynn reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous quote.

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

To this day, many people use this quote to remind themselves not to dwell in the past. When we dwell on something, we think about it constantly. It becomes a distraction and keeps us from moving forward.

Now, this famous quote is useful, but it is a bit long. Perhaps you would rather use a shorter, food-related idiom to help you move on and forget your past mistakes.

In that case you can say, "Don't cry over spilt milk."

Well, you broke my heart (broke my heart),

When you said ‘goodbye' (said goodbye)

But now the milk's been spilt and you're going to cry.

Early in the morning, you're going to know that I was right...oh yeah...

When we "cry over spilt milk," we are upset or sad about something bad we have done that cannot be undone. This is another way of saying, "What's done is done. You cannot change the past. So stop thinking about it." If you spill milk, you cannot gather it back up and put it back in the container.

We usually use the expression this way: "There's no use crying over spilled milk." "Spilled" or "spilt" are both okay. Some say, this expression was first used in the mid-1600s in England. Back then, the expression was "no weeping for shed milk."

If old quotes and food expressions are still not working for you, there are other ways to state this idea.

Let's say past regrets continue to trouble your boss. You can use a word we heard earlier – dwell. You might tell your boss: "Don't dwell on the past. You cannot change it, so why worry about it? You must move on and look toward the future."

This is all very polite. And the word "dwell" works well here as it is somewhat formal. It's good for a pep talk with your boss.

But what if one of your close friends is having the same kind of problem? What if this friend has been stuck in the past for far too long? They need a very different type of pep talk. It may be time for you to tell your friend, "Get over it!"

Now, this could sound rude. After all, it is a wake-up call, a warning to change for the better. And those can be hard for people to hear and accept. But if someone has been crying over spilt milk for months, or even years, a wake-up call is necessary.

And that's the end of this Words and Their Stories. Until next time, I'm Anna Matteo.

You cry over spilled milk.

You keep your tears in a jar.

You think the world is going to end tomorrow.

Ain't it beautiful how different we are...

Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor. The song earlier in the show is Buddy Holly singing "Early in the Morning." The song at the end is Boy George and Culture Club singing "Oil & Water."


Words in This Story

regret v. to feel sad or sorry about (something that you did or did not do)

quote n. something that a person says or writes that is repeated or used by someone else in another piece of writing or a speech

distraction n. an object that directs one's attention away from something else

idiom n. an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own

polite adj. having or showing good manners or respect for other people : socially correct or proper

formal adj. requiring proper clothing and manners

pep talk n. a usually brief, intense, and emotional talk designed to influence or encourage someone

rudeadj. not having or showing concern or respect for the rights and feelings of other people : not polite

wake-up call n. something that serves to alert a person to a problem, danger, or need