You find a little hole in your coat, so small that you do not think it matters. Later, you find it has become a big tear; and it takes you more than nine stitches with needle and thread, and time and trouble, to repair it. If you had mended it at once, you could have done it in a minute or so and with one or two stitches.
So the proverb means, take things in time and you will save yourself a lot of trouble. A small hole in a canal embankment can be stopped up with very little trouble; but if it is neglected, it will widen into a great breach which will call for much labour and expense to make it right again. As the old saying teaches, a kingdom may be lost by neglecting to replace a nail in a horse’s shoe; “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe, the horse was lost; for want of a horse, the rider was lost; for want of a rider, the battle was lost; for want of the battle, the kingdom was lost.”
This lesson applies to matters of health. A man catches a cold and, thinking it a small matter, neglects it. It develops into pneumonia, and he is dangerously ill for weeks, or even dies. If he had taken the cold in time, he would have saved his life, or at any rate much suffering, loss of time and the expense of doctor’s heavy bills. Or he neglects a scratch or cut, and develops blood-poisoning, and is seriously ill; whereas if he had attended to the wound at once, no harm would have come to him.
It can be applied, too, to morals and character. No one gets into a bad habit all at once. All habits begin with small and apparently innocent indulgences.
For example, drunkenness. A drunkard begins by taking a glass of wine or whisky now and then, and thinks nothing of it. But the appetite for drink grows until it becomes a craving; and before he knows where he is, he has become a slave to drink. As a Japanese proverb says: “First the man takes a drink; then the drink takes a drink; then the drink takes the man.” The only safe way is to avoid the first glass.
Inattention to small details, and the neglect of small beginnings, have marred many a promising career.