Q: I’m wondering if you can tell me where the idiom “it’s no use crying over spilled/spilt milk” comes from. The Online Etymological Dictionary attributes it to Thomas C. Haliburton in 1836. But why milk?
A: In its first incarnation, in the mid-1600s, the phrase was about “shed” milk. Back then, one of the meanings of the participial adjective “shed” was spilled. (The verb “shed” meant, among other things, to let a liquid pour out by accident.)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the phrase “it’s no use crying over spilt milk” and its many variations as meaning “it is futile to regret what cannot be altered or undone.”
The dictionary’s first published citation comes from a collection of English proverbs by James Howell (1659): “No weeping for shed milk.”
The fact that Howell was recording a proverb rather than inventing something new indicates that the saying had been around long before 1659. Here are some later citations, and their dates, from the OED.
1681, from England’s Improvement by Sea and Land, by Andrew Yarranton, an engineer and industrialist: “Sir, there is no crying for shed milk, that which is past cannot be recall’d.”
1738, from Jonathan Swift’s Polite Conversation:
“‘Tis a Folly to cry for spilt milk.”
1824, from The Pink Tippet, a story by Lucy L. Cameron: “‘There is no use in crying for shed milk,’ answered Betty.”
1860, from Anthony Trollope’s novel Castle Richmond: “It’s no use sighing after spilt milk.”
1893, from New England Magazine: “His ‘sober second thought’ decided him to face the music, confess his fault and make the best of it, feeling it was of no use to ‘cry for spilled milk,’ and leave the matter to terminate as it might.”
Although the expression is frequently seen with either “spilled” or “spilt” as the participial adjective, the “spilled” version is noticeably more common today, especially in the United States, according to Google searches.
By the way, the verb “spill” itself has an interesting history. In Anglo-Saxon days, spelled spillan, it meant to destroy, kill, or mutilate. We’ve lost most of the violent senses of the word, though we still speak of spilling blood as well as milk, water, and other liquids.
But back to this business of crying over spilled liquids. You ask why milk is spilled as opposed to grog or some other venerable beverage?
Unfortunately, I can’t find any authoritative source that answers the question. Perhaps the original reference was to little children, weeping after spilling their milk (and perhaps fearing their mother’s wrath). We may never know.