Idioms: “No Pain, No Gain”

By Kaitlin Strohschein

The next time you burn your tongue on a steaming cup of tea remember, “No pain, no gain!” Although this idiom and tea may at first appear to have few similarities, they share a common heritage: both have strong ancestral ties to England.

One of the earliest written uses of the expression is attributed to John Ray, a British pioneer in the field of systematic biology and a prolific author on a wide variety of topics. Ray wrote “Without pains, no gains” in a compilation of wise sayings in 1670.

Benjamin Franklin, who began his life as a British colonist and ended it as an American citizen, included “No gains without pains” in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1745. Both Franklin and Ray were writer/scientists.

A historic, non-British use of the idiom can be found in Adlai Stevenson’s acceptance speech at the 1952 Democratic National Convention: “Let’s talk sense to the American people. Let’s tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains.” Mr. Stevenson “painfully” lost that election to Dwight Eisenhower.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, the phrase appeared in the 1500s and, in the modern sense, is most commonly a reference to the pain experienced by training athletes.