What do People Mean When They Talk About "Sowing Wild Oats"?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Since at least the 16th century, English speakers have been referring to periods of youthful hijinks as “sowing wild oats,” with variants like “so and so was sowing his oats.” This colorful phrase has appeared in some form of another since the time of the Greeks, and several cultures have their own versions of this concept, all of which reference irritating weeds which can wreak havoc on agricultural crops.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Wild oats are the untamed predecessor of oats, a valuable cereal crop which is grown in many regions of the world. Wild oats, however, do not produce useful heads of grain, and they are also very adept at infiltrating fields of crops. The only way to get rid of wild oats is to repeatedly hand weed a field, and in some cases a field may be plowed and reworked to get rid of the invaders.

Therefore, wild oats are associated with damage and wasted time. Someone who is sowing wild oats is engaging in frivolous and potentially damaging pursuits. In many case, the term is used specifically to describe a harmful occupation which could damage the reputation of a family, or pose a threat to someone's future. While sowing wild oats, someone is not taking steps to advance a career or do something useful with life.

This term also has another, more crude meaning. Most people only talk about sowing wild oats when it comes to young men, with the lewd implication that young men engage in a variety of sexual adventures while sowing wild oats. These adventures could be harmless learning experiences, but they could also result in more serious problems, like unexpected pregnancies or diseases.

Youthful dissipation is a time-honored occupation, especially for young men. Many cultures assume that young men need to spend some time sowing their oats before settling down, and in some cultures the activity is actually actively encouraged, sometimes to the despair of young women. Historically, the concept has been applied in a very sexist ways, with young women remaining proper and modest, while young men are allowed to have adventures and see the world.

A few youthful adventures could probably be considered character building, and many youths of both genders get into a few scrapes today. However, a prolonged period of useless occupation tends to be frowned upon, as most societies would like all of their members to be productive, upstanding citizens.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@AnswerMan, my kids aren't Amish, but every last one of them decided to go off on their own after high school and sow their own wild oats. Most of them got tired of that lifestyle in about a year and decided to go to college. My youngest son, however, has never really quit going out to bars and coming in at all hours of the night. I'm hoping it's just a phase and he'll eventually decide to grow up a little.


That's one reason I like the way the Amish handle adolescence. Amish teens and young adults actually get to spend a few years away from the strict lifestyle and experience life. Some of them really do "sow some wild oats", but I suspect others just try a few things to get it out of their systems. At least they satisfy their curiosity about the outside world before deciding whether or not to return to the fold.

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