“Nip it in the bud.”
Barney Fife, with more than a little assist from the actor who played him, Don Knotts, made those words famous on The Andy Griffith Show back in the 1960s. If you’re like me, you’ve watched countless reruns of The Andy Griffith Show, and you’ve heard Barney Fife utter that phrase a gazillion or so times. You've heard "nip it in the bud" so many times, it's one of the more tired, boring and uninspiring phrases, and the last thing you feel like doing is thinking about those five words right now.
I started thinking about them recently when I was thinking of a problem that a friend shared with me. Since that friend may be reading this, for all I know, I’ll pull a Dragnet and will keep the names and situations fictitious, but suffice it to say, I was thinking about this friend’s issue, and I found myself daydreaming and thinking, “Man, he just needs to do something about this now. He needs to nip it in the bud.”
And, voila, I knew I had an idea for The TV Professor.
Look, Deputy Barney Fife got a lot of things wrong on The Andy Griffith Show. OK, most things wrong. But if you really think about it, “nip it in the bud” might be the best advice a TV series has ever offered. It may be among the best advice out there -- ever.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
The “Nip it in the Bud” Episode
Barney Fife used the phrase, “nip it in the bud,” in a number of episodes, but the episode that everybody seems to remember is where he uses the phrase a number of times in the episode, “One-Punch Opie,” which occurred in the third season. The episode centers around Opie being bullied, though it isn’t the memorable one where a kid is taking his milk money (that would be the episode early in the second season, “Opie and the Bully”).
In this particular episode, there’s a new boy in town, Steve Quincy, who has been making fun of Opie – and encouraging the other youths in town to steal food from the local grocer and break a street lamp.
When Sheriff Andy Taylor learns this, along with Barney Fife, it’s the deputy who is particularly outraged and lecturing his boss that something needs to be done about this now.
“I tell you, this is just the beginning,” Barney says. “Going around breaking street lamps. City property, mind you. Next thing you know, they'll be on motorcycles, wearing them leather jackets and zooming around. They'll take over the whole town... A reign of terror.”
Andy protests: “These are just boys you're talking about. They're only about eight years old.”
“Yeah, well, today's eight-year-olds are tomorrow's teenagers,” Barney argues. “I say this calls for action, and now... Nip it in the bud! First sign a youngster's going wrong, you got to nip it in the bud.”
Andy thinks Barney is going to extremes. Granted, Barney does that a lot.
“I'm gonna have a talk with them. What more you want me to do?” Andy wonders.
“Just don't molly-colly,” Barney says.
“I won't,” Andy promises.
“Nip it. Go read any book you want on the subject of child discipline, and you'll find that every one of them is in favor of bud nipping,” Barney says.
“I'll take care of it,” Andy promises.
“Only one way to take care of it,” Barney says. “Nip it... in the bud.”
The thing is – they are both right. Andy’s correct, as always, that these are eight-year-old boys and not hoodlums, and they should be treated as kids; but Barney is right that it’s better to fix a problem early on, rather than let it go unchecked.
The meaning of "nip it in the bud."
I think we all know that "nip it in the bud" is a reference to gardening. You nip a flower in the bud, and it won't grow. You'd think you'd want the plant to blossom -- that's a good thing. But I'm not much of a gardener, and apparently, if you nip certain plants in the bud, overall, it can be healthier for the plant.
So you nip the flower in the bud, and you solve a potential problem.
The phrase, "nip it in the bud" has been around since at least the mid-1800s, in the newspaper archives, anyway, and I suspect it's probably at least a little older than that.
Think of All the Areas in Life Where It’s Better to “Nip it in the Bud.”
So when I was thinking about my friend’s problem – and I realized that "nip it in the bud" was part of my lexicon, I started thinking about the phrase and realized: “Wow, that’s really a corny sounding but powerful life lesson.”
Seriously, if we all started making “nip it in the bud” a mantra, how could that change our lives?
So I started thinking of a few examples of situations where things can go out of control – if you don’t nip in the bud.
Car repairs. So your “check engine” light has come on. Maybe you can drive a few more days – or weeks or months – without anything going wrong. But what are the odds that you can drive indefinitely without your car breaking down? If you don’t have the money to go to the mechanic right away, that’s one thing. But otherwise – nip those car repairs in the bud. Nothing good is going to come from waiting to get your car checked out.
Credit card debt. So you’ve got some revolving credit card debt, and you need to pay it off soon. Well, I can tell you from years of experience in my 20s and 30s – don’t wait. Don’t do nothing and hope that somehow the number of dollars that you owe will go down without some hard work on your end. You will be wrong. Nip that credit card debt in the bud before you later regret it.
Health issues. If you have a cold, that’s one thing; that’ll probably go away on its own. But if you have just about anything else that isn’t improving – your weight is climbing, your weight is plunging (and not on purpose), you can’t sleep, you’re falling asleep all the time – go see a doctor. Or a dentist. Or whatever health professional seems appropriate. There are too many stories out there of people who put off seeing their doctors or dentists and lived to regret it – and then sometimes didn’t live. Nip those health issues in the bud.
Nip it in the Bud
I could go on and talk about leaky roofs, termites, severe depression -- none of those problems will likely fix themselves without some help -- but you get the idea.
So as it turns out in “One Punch Opie,” Opie ends up solving the Steve Quincy problem himself, by standing up to the bully and fortunately nobody gets walloped (like in the other bully-centric Opie episode).
Anyway, Barney’s advice is actually pretty excellent. Problems often aren’t fixed on their own, and I know we all know that, but we forget it. If we didn't, we'd almost never have serious problems; we'd always nip them in the bud, first chance we got.
So the next time I’m tempted to put off doing something important, I’m going to try to remember Barney Fife's little speech and nip it in the bud. Words to live by.
A Stray Observation
In some of the earlier dialogue, as you may recall, Barney Fife warns Andy Taylor to not “molly-colly,” and I found myself wondering how long that expression has been around. Well, Barney said it a little wrong (no surprise; Barney said everything wrong). The word is mollycoddle, and it’s been around since the 1820s or 1830s, depending on what source you go with. It means to coddle or pamper.
It may have come from the process of making coddling eggs, which is similar to poaching an egg. You cook the eggs gently, with the water just under boiling. Mirriam-Webster suspects that mollycoddle came about as a combination between coddle (you have to pamper coddled eggs for them to turn out right) and Molly, a nickname for Mary. In the 1830s, mollycoddle was a word that meant wimp, and then it slowly morphed into a verb and the idea of treating somebody way too gingerly.
Probably more than anyone wanted to know, but clearly, while Barney Fife may have not been great at pronunciation, he did sometimes have a decent vocabulary. Sort of.
Where you can watch this show (at the time of this writing): The Andy Griffith Show is on the cable channels MeTV.com and TV Land. Meanwhile, select episodes can be found on some streaming channels. If you want to watch it, you should be able to find it.
Articles similar to this Andy Griffith Show one: Well, you might enjoy another Andy Griffith blog post, this one centering on how the origins of the phrase, “greased lightning” – in another Opie-centric episode, where he learns (eventually) to lose gracefully after a foot race.