English is full of idioms. One of the most common English idioms is “great men think alike.” But what does it really mean? How do native speakers use this phrase? This article will explore the meaning, origin, and usage of this common idiom.
What Does “Great Minds Think Alike” Mean?
“Great minds think alike” is used when someone has the same idea or thought as someone else in roughly the same time period. It’s a playful way to call attention to the shared idea and commend the other person for being as clever as you.
Here’s an example dialogue to give you an idea of how it might be used:
- Sally: Let’s get pizza.
- Bob: I was going to say that!
- Sally: Great minds think alike!
Here, Sally is calling attention to their shared idea. She’s also saying she thinks it’s a great idea. Great minds have great ideas, after all.
Some sources claim that the full version of this idiom is actually “great minds think alike, but fools rarely differ.” Whether or not this is the true full version of the idiom is debatable (more on that later), but it does change the meaning.
This “full” version of the idiom has almost the opposite meaning as the common version. It means that having the same idea as someone else doesn’t make it a good idea.
What Is The Origin Of “Great Minds Think Alike”?
As with many idioms, the origin of “great minds think alike” isn’t completely clear. It was likely spoken quite a bit before anyone ever wrote it down, but we only have print examples.
The first example we have of someone expressing the core idea of this idiom in writing is in a 1618 comedy written by Dabridgcourt Belchier, “Hans Beer-Pot.”
He wrote, “Though he made that verse, Those words were made before. Good wits doe jumpe.”
That doesn’t seem terribly close to “great minds think alike” at first, but keep in mind that Belchier was writing in the period of Early Modern English. Think Shakespeare.
“Jumpe” here means “agree with.” So you can see the essence of the modern idiom in this quote. It’s possible “great minds think alike” was derived from “good wits doe jumpe.”
Similar phrasings of this idea appeared in print a couple of times throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but the earliest evidence of the wording as we know it today didn’t appear in print until the 19th century.
The phrase first appeared in print in Carl Theodor von Unlanski’s 1816 biography “The Woful History of the Unfortunate Eudoxia.”
He wrote, “It may occur that an editor has already printed something on the identical subject — great minds think alike, you know.”
The idiom steadily became more and more common after this. It’s thought to have become a well-known idiom by the 1860s.
“And fools rarely differ”
So where does the possible second half of the idiom come from? Well, no one’s quite sure.
There are a couple of ways this part of the idiom has been worded:
- “And fools rarely differ.”
- “And fools seldom differ.”
- “Small minds rarely differ.”
However it’s phrased, it doesn’t seem like anyone has been able to date it.
There are some claims that, rather than stemming from “good wits doe jumpe,” “great minds think alike” is actually an ancient Greek proverb. They claim the full proverb is “great minds think alike, but fools rarely differ.”
However, there isn’t any evidence backing these claims.
Another explanation for this part of the phrase is that it was a common insulting response. So rather than one complete phrase, it would appear in two parts:
- Well you know what they say. Great minds think alike.
- And small minds rarely differ.
We only have print evidence of the first part of the idiom, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the second part is new. It just means we don’t know when people started saying it. Whether it was part of the original idiom and dropped or a comment added later is unknown.
How Is “Great Minds Think Alike” Used In Modern English?
“Great minds think alike” is so well-known in Modern English it’s often shortened to “great minds.”
This idiom can be used in any situation where multiple people had the same thought or idea. It can be used seriously, playfully, or ironically.
Politicians and academics often say “great minds think alike” (or the shortened version) when they have similar ideas. While they may be a hint of playfulness when they say it, it’s still considered appropriate for professional and academic settings.
“Great minds think alike” can also be used in more mundane or playful situations. You do not need to have a revolutionary idea to use the phrase, you just need to have the same idea.
This idiom is often used ironically. It’s common for someone to poke fun at two people who had the same bad idea or made the same silly mistake by saying “great minds think alike.”
The second half of the idiom is also common and can be deployed in any of these situations. Like the first part of the idiom, its usage is flexible. It can be genuinely criticizing or playfully poking fun.
Examples Of How To Use “Great Minds Think Alike” In A Sentence
Here are some examples to show you some situations where you might use this phrase.
- Can we take a 5-minute break?
- I was just going to suggest that, actually.
- Great minds think alike!
- Isn’t it interesting how multiple ancient civilizations decided the pyramid shape was the best way to create a tall structure.
- Yes, great minds think alike.
- I had no idea it’s actually pronounced “library.”
- I didn’t know either!
- Well, you know what they say. Great minds think alike.
Note that the final example is ironic.
“Great minds think alike” is used to draw attention to two people having the same idea. It complements (or ironically makes fun of) their shared thinking. If you add “and fools rarely differ,” you’re instead cautioning that shared ideas don’t necessarily mean good ideas.
Martin holds a Master’s degree in Finance and International Business. He has six years of experience in professional communication with clients, executives, and colleagues. Furthermore, he has teaching experience from Aarhus University. Martin has been featured as an expert in communication and teaching on Forbes and Shopify. Read more about Martin here.