I’ve always rather liked this proverb. It is of ancient origin, being a translation into English of an expression that appears in the Bible.
In Jeremiah 13:23 we find:
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?”
Although of course the Book of Jeremiah was written many centuries before anything in English, dated as it is to around 630-580 BC, the expression in this form was first documented in English in 1546, but we find an earlier reference to it in a surviving portion of the Wycliffite Bible from 1450:
Jeremye..by profecie schewid..of the libard ispoilid of his colours.
(Prefatory Epistles of St. Jerome)
We can also find the same expression in Welsh: a newidia y llewpard ei frychni? – “Can the leopard change its spots?”
Interestingly, despite the Biblical origins, other languages used by mostly Christian populations have not been so keen to adopt the expression.
In Italian, the equivalent is il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio; “the wolf loses its skin, but not its vice”. Similarly, in Slovenian, we find volk dlako menja, nravi nikoli, which means “the wolf changes its coat, never its temper”.
And despite the early Greek versions of the Book of Jeremiah, in Modern Greek, the preferred idiom is άλλαξε ο Μανωλιός κα έβαλε τα ρούχα αλλιώς (allaxe o Manolios kai evale ta rouha allios), which translates as “Manolios got changed and put his clothes on differently”.
Over to Russian, where there are two expressions competing for our attention. First up is сколько волка ни корми он, все в лес смотрит, which means “however much you feed a wolf, it will still look at the forest”. Not unlike the Italian expression, you might think. Then there is горбатого могила исправит, with quite a different meaning; “A humpback will only be fixed by the grave”.
Wolves, it seems, form a popular theme in these expressions, with another one in Modern Greek: Ο λύκος κι αν εγέρασε δεν άλλαξε η προβιά του (o likos kai an eyerase, den allaxe i provia tou), which literally means “however much the wolf aged, its fleece did not change”, with a reference to the children’s story about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Onto Spanish, where there is a choice of proverbs. One version is el árbol que nace torcido jamás sus ramas enderezza, whose meaning “the tree born crooked can never straighten its branches” brings to mind a nice picture of a gnarled , impossibly bent, old tree. Another equivalent is el tigre nunca cambia sus rayas, which translates as “the tiger does not change its stripes”, a very similar concept to the leopard expression. Wolves, it seems, are not the only animals to be popular in expressions, for we find the same idea in Polish: tygrys nie zmienia swoich pręg, which means “the tiger does not change its stripes”. Geographically far away, but close in thought.
No animals in the Turkish expression, where the equivalent would be can çıkar huy çıkmaz, which word for word would translate as “soul leaves, temperament does not leave”, which of course would perhaps be better interpreted as “dying is more likely than personality change”, or “you’re stuck that way forever”!
While there is no exact expression in German, one expression that comes close is über sein Schatten springen, which literally means “to jump over one’s shadow”, which I think is a very nice image, with a similar idea to the Greek expression: you are the same whichever clothes you wear, and whichever end of your shadow you try to stand at!
Finally, here is the exact phrase, as it is in the Bible text, in Scottish Gaelic: Am feud an t-Etiopach a chroicinn a mhùthadh, no an liopard a bhreice? – “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?”