I was reading a letter written by T. H. Huxley, when I encountered such a paragraph and was stuck by the phrase in bold:

Nothing is less to be desired than the fate of a young man who, as the Scotch proverb says, in “trying to make a spoon spoils a horn,” and becomes a mere hanger-on in literature or in science, when he might have been a useful and a valuable member of Society in other occupations.

I can surmise the meaning of it in that context. Huxley was convincing the young man to strike a balance between commercial work and academic pursuits. To avoid ruining his job while pursuing something he might not deserve.

I have searched the Google, only to find this: "make a spoon or spoil a horn", which is relative to but different from this phrase. Then my question is, what is the origin and the exact meaning of "trying to make a spoon spoils a horn"?

1 Answer 1


I've never heard the phrase. But Wikipedia (citing the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th Edition) says "The word spoon derives from an ancient word meaning a chip of wood or horn carved from a larger piece."

  • Interesting. So the proverb may originate in Scotch when they used horn to make spoon. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 0:46
  • I don't know that it was particularly Scottish to make spoons from horn. ("Scotch" is a kind of whisky, not a language or a people).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 10:27
  • 1
    Every single one of the first 30 results searching for the 4 words make spoon spoil horn in Google Books is a definition (in books claiming to list idiomatic usages, proverbs, etc.). Which suggests to me that it never really had any significant currency; it's just "interesting". A couple say American proverbs Commented Apr 21 at 17:43

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