Q From Len Jayson: Can you tell me the derivation of sowing one’s wild oats? Why oats?
A Not so much why oats, as why wild oats. The saying is referring to a European grass species with the formal name Avena fatua, which has for centuries in English been called wild oats. Some botanists think it’s the wild original of cultivated oats. Farmers have since ancient times hated it because it’s a weed that’s useless as a cereal crop, but its seeds have always been difficult to separate from those of useful cereals and so tended to survive and multiply from year to year. The only way to remove it was to tramp the fields and hand-weed it. Even today it’s still a problem, despite modern seed cleaning and selective weedkillers.
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. But 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.
The saying is first recorded in English in 1542, in a tract by the Norfolk Protestant clergyman Thomas Becon, though I’m told that a related phrase appears in the works of the Roman author Plautus. It’s common in older English literature, no doubt because the image struck a chord in a society that was still mainly agrarian. Here’s a typical example, from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, of 1869: “Boys will be boys, young men must sow their wild oats, and women must not expect miracles”.