Here is an expression I expect you have heard on numerous occasions. It is, after all, fairly common, and may be used in reference to beggars or just to admonish you for being ungrateful when receiving a gift. In this respect, it is similar to “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, which we have looked at before.
As you might expect, it is an old expression. Begging has been around since the very earliest human societies, so we should not be surprised at this. We can find it in John Heywood’s Proverbs and Epigrams, from 1562, where he records it as “Beggars should be no choosers.” Perhaps it was both a reaction against ungratefulness and an expression of the Medieval attitude towards beggars, that they should accept whatever there is and not wish for better.
Of course, as we have said, begging has been a feature of all societies, irrespective of the language spoken, and it is intriguing to see the different ways in which this idea is expressed in other languages. Here are just a few:
In Spanish, they say cuando hay hambre, no hay pan duro, which translates as “when you’re hungry, no bread is hard”, meaning, of course, that you should eat whatever is on offer, however unappetising. The Welsh expression; nid y derbyniwr a biau dewis – “it’s not the receiver who owns the choice” is self explanatory.
I am quite fond of the expression from German in der Not frisst der Teufel Fliegen, which literally means “in need, the devil eats flies”. I suppose, if a human soul is not available, the devil has to make do! The Slovenians agree with this, as their expression is exactly the same; V sili hudič še muhe žre – meaning, again, “in need, the devil eats flies”. I don’t mind admitting that this expression brings a smile to my face and a little chuckle! This is especially amusing in Slovenian, as the verb used for “eat”, žreti, actually means “to eat greedily”! Interestingly, however, there is also another expression in Slovenian: Berač ne izbira, which is much like the English expression, as it means “a beggar doesn’t choose”.
There is an intriguing expression in Turkish, one which should tell us a little about the past of the people, from the time when it was first coined: Ya bu deveyi güdeceksin, ya bu diyardan gideceksin. This translates as: “either you drive this camel or you go leave this land.” Evidently camels once played a much greater role in Turkish society than is the case today! But this expression goes beyond that, it actually plays on the similarity between the words güdeceksin (you will drive) and gideceksin (you will go).
But my favourite expression in this situation comes from Italian; o mangiar questa minestra o saltar dalla finestra, which means “either eat this soup or jump out of the window”. No tolerance for grumbling there!