if wishes were horses, beggars would ride

This is an English language proverb and nursery rhyme, originating in the 16th century, which suggests if wishing could make things happen, then even the poorest people would have everything they wanted.

One common version of the rhyme:

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
If turnips were watches, I’d wear one by my side.
If “if’s” and “and’s” were pots and pans,
There’d be no work for tinkers’ hands.

The first recognizable ancestor of the rhyme was recorded in William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine, printed in 1605, which contained the lines, “If wishes were thrushes beggars would eat birds”. 

The reference to horses was first in James Carmichael’s Proverbs in Scots printed in 1628, which included the lines, “And if wishes were horses, poor men wald ride”. 

The first mention of beggars is in John Ray’s Collection of English Proverbs in 1670, in the form, “If wishes would bide, beggars would ride”. He also recorded this version: “If wishes were buttercakes, beggars might bite.”

The first versions with close to today’s wording was in James Kelly’s Scottish Proverbs, Collected and Arranged in 1721, with the wording, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”. 

The rhyme above was probably the combination of two of many versions and was collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the 1840s. The last line was sometimes used to stop children from questioning and get to work: “If if’s and and’s were pots and pans, there’d surely be dishes to do.”

Indeed, if wishes were books, I’d own a great many more than I do now!

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