I feel sure that the sentiment expressed by this phrase must go right back to the very earliest human communities; “to err is human”, as the saying goes, but that doesn’t mean we want to keep on making the same errors!
A very early form of this expression can be found in Aesop’s Fables, possibly dating to the 600s BC, although it is not clear which tales were written when. The fable in question is about a wolf that wants to eat a dog, and is tricked by the dog into letting it go. Very aptly, in Aesop’s tale, it says: “he who has been once beguiled by another should keep away from them.”
It was translated into English in the 15th century by the first English printer, William Caxton, who wrote it as:
“’He that hath ben ones begyled by somme other ought to kepe hym wel fro(m) the same.”
Very logical, you might think, but the preferred phrasing has moved on since then. In 1853, we find a close reference to our modern version in ‘Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour‘ by English novelist Robert Surtees:
“…had been bit once, and he was not going to give Mr. Sponge a second chance…”
You might be wondering what the “bite” part of the idiom is referring to and how it arose. We should bear in mind that in the past, most people would have had contact with animals that might bite them, whether livestock on a farm, dogs or other domestic animals. It is not hard to imagine that bites would have occurred – and the victim would have been likely to avoid the offending animal in future.
Let’s have a look at what other languages have to say. The corresponding idiom in German is ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer, which translates as “a burned child avoids fire”. Very similarly, in Swedish the saying goes: bränt barn skyr elden, which signifies “a burnt child dreads the fire”.
In Welsh we find two expressions; a losgodd ei fysedd a ochel y tân; “fingers burned, fire avoided” and cas gan gath y ci a’i bratho, which means “the cat hates the dog and its bite”.
In Italian, the proverb is cane scottato dall’acqua calda ha paura della fredda, which translates as “a dog scalded by hot water is frightened of cold water”. Along similar lines, there is also the French equivalent; chat échaudé craint l’eau froide, meaning “a scalded cat is afraid of cold water.”
The Greek version refers to people rather than animals, but the idea is similar; όποιος καίγεται στο χυλό φυσάει και το γιαούρτι (opios kaiyetai sto hilo fisaei kai to yiaourti), which means “whoever gets burnt on broth blows yogurt too”. This is very similar to the Turkish expression; sütten ağzı yanan yoğurdu üfleyerek yer signifying “he whose mouth is burnt drinking milk blows on yoghurt while eating it”. All these last few are clearly emphasising how overcautious a person might become once having experienced something unpleasant.
On now to Finnish, which seems very logical, if slightly less colourful this time: vahingosta viisastuu, meaning “a mistake makes you wiser”. There is a similar phrase in Slovenian: iz napak se učimo; “we learn from mistakes”.
I like the Hungarian expression a lot, it does make you wonder about the wildlife in the country; akit a kígyó megmart, a gyíktól is fél, which means “whoever has been bitten by a snake, also fears a lizard”.
The Spanish expression came close to winning first place in my estimation, it really is great; el que se quema con leche, ve una vaca y llora, which means “whoever gets burnt on milk, sees a cow and cries”. So silly, it’s very funny. Just imagine sobbing at the very sight of a cow! Hats off to Spanish!
And last but not least, we come to my personal favourites: the Dutch expression een ezel stoot zich geen twee maal aan dezelfde steen. This means “(even) a donkey doesn’t stumble twice over the same stone.” Donkeys are regarded as particularly stupid animals by the Dutch.
Not to be outdone, the Slovenians also regard donkeys as stupid beasts, and it is reflected in their most colourful version of the idiom: osel gre samo enkrat na led, which signifies “a donkey steps on ice only once”. Probably because it broke its legs the first time, and doesn’t step anywhere any more – always assuming it didn’t actually fall through the ice and drown, of course!