Problem

I was very surprised recently when someone asked me why this word is used in other languages. “Obviously,” the speaker said, “they took it from English!” I thought at first that this had to be a joke, but no. It was completely serious.

The word problem in this form is indeed English today, just as many other words that started out in other languages are also English. But it did not originate in English. We find our earliest references for it in English in the 14th century, in Middle English. This example is taken from the Wycliffite Bible, from 1382:

Þei seidyn to þe wif of Sampson, ‘fage to þi man & moeue hym þat he schewe to þee what betokneþ þe probleme (Judg.14.15)

They said to Sampson’s wife “go to your husband and get him to show you what the problem signifies.”

As you can see, its form here is more or less the same as today: probleme. But apart from its modern meaning, it could also mean a riddle, a mathematical problem, a puzzle, a difficulty or a scientific question that invited investigation. In this respect, it has changed.

The Middle English word came from Old French problème, the same form as in Modern French today. It was contributed to French by Latin, from the form problema, which in turn came from the Greek πρόβλημα – it is a bone of contention as to whether this should be pronounced /provlima/ as in Modern Greek, or /problima/. Unfortunately, there are no native speakers of Ancient Greek left around to ask!

Now, let’s examine the components of the word. It is made up of two elements: προ + βλήμα (pro + blima). The first element is seen in a number of other words, and means “front, forward, before”. Moving onto the second part of the word, we find that it comes from a verb: βάλλω. This is the source of another word that we readily recognize in English: ballistics. This might give you a clue as to what it meant, as it was ‘throw’. (In Modern Greek it means ‘put, place’.)

So in problem we have “thing that is thrown forward”. This could indeed be a problem in its modern sense! And it is one of those words that has travelled around the world, with examples such as French problème, Italian problema, Russian проблема, Welsh problem, to name but a few.

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Birds of a feather flock together

Have you ever looked up at the sky and seen a flock of birds flying overhead? It can be a magnificent sight, the more so when there is a very large number of birds. It takes no great powers of deduction to work out how this expression might have come about – simple observation tells us that birds of the same species – of the same feather, as it were – can be frequently seen together.

So, where does it come from? This is an intriguing question. It appears in a translation of Plato’s Republic by Benjamin Jowett, published in 1856. Plato’s work dates to around 380 BC, which would indeed make it an ancient proverb. In Book I of The Republic, in Jowett’s translation, I found:

“I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says”

However, I then went to the Greek text. It reads:

Εγώ σοι έφη, νη την Δία, εγώ ω Σώκρατες, γε μοι φαίνεται, πολλάκις γαρ συνερχόμεθα τίνες εις ταύτο, παραπλησίαν ηλικίαν έχοντες διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν

I see no reference here to either birds or feathers. It does indeed state that it is in keeping with the old proverb – διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν – but it does not actually state what that proverb is.Scholars generally maintain that the “old proverb” in question is: Ηλιξ ήλικα τέρπει γέρων δε τέρπει γέροντα (Skouteropoulos, commentary on Plato, Polis Publications, σχόλια του Ν. Μ. Σκουτερόπουλου στην Πολιτεία του Πλάτωνα εκδ. Πόλις). This simply means that people have need of the company of others of their own age – no mention of birds or flocks. It seems to me that Jowett simply chose a well-known English proverb for his translation, to make it clear to the reader.

This means we have to look for another source for our proverb.

There is a slightly different turn of phrase, but still essentially the same expression, in The Rescuing of Romish Fox by William Turner, which dates to 1545. At that time, it was:

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.”

It seems likely that the expression was in use before that time, even if this is the earliest it appears in writing.

Now let’s take a look at how this is expressed in other languages. In French one might say qui se ressemble s’assemble, or literally “whoever resembles, assembles together.” Italian also has chi si assomiglia si piglia; “what is similar takes to each other”. The German expression is along similar lines: Gleich und Gleich gesellt sich gern, which means “similar and similar like to join together.” There is another German expression which is a bit more colourful: aus dem gleichen Holz geschnitzt, which translates as “carved from the same wood”.

This brings me now to Slovenian. There are two expressions of note. The first is very much like the German mentioned above: Podobno se s podobnim druži, meaning “similar keeps company with similar.” But it is intriguing to note that this language, geographically far from English, in a separate language family, also has this expression: Enake sorte ptiči skup letijo. This literally means “the same birds fly together”.

Another idiom in French is de même farine, or “from the same flour”. Similarly, in Portuguese, they say farinha do mesmo saco, meaning “flour from the same bag”, meaning that something looks and behaves similar and can be found in the same place, much as we might use the English expression.

In Spanish there are several expressions. We will start with pájaros del mismo plumaje vuelan juntos, which means the same as the English expression. Then there is also Dios los cría y ellos se juntan, meaning “God calls them and they gather together”.

In Polish we find a simple but succinct expression: Ciągnie swój do swego, which translates assimilar people are pulled to each other”. Japanese, too, would say “like draws to like”; Rui wa tomo wo yobu (類は友を呼ぶ).

Welsh also uses a similar phrasing to the English: adar o’r unlliw a hedan i’r unlle – “birds of the same colour fly to the same place”.

Geographically further away, but with the same concept, in Finnish we find: Samanlaiset linnut aina yhdessä lentävät, meaning literally “similar birds always fly together”.

Moving on now to Swedish, there are two lovely expressions to express this idea: Lika barn leka bäst, which means “similar children play best together”, a nice peaceful image, or, my personal preference: Kaka söker maka, an expression that literally translates as “cake looks for partner”.

Having looked at ancient Greek in the first part of the post, here is the modern expression: γυρίζει ο τέντζερης και βρίσκει και το καπάκι του [yirizei o tentzeris kai vriskei kai to kapaki tou] – “the pot turns round and finds its lid”. With more or less the same imagery is the Turkish idiom: tencere yuvarlanmış kapağını bulmuş – “the saucepan rolled away and found its lid”. Bulgarian, a neighbouring language to both of the previous two, has търкулнало се гърнето, та си намерило похлупак [tarkulnalo se garneto ta si namerilo pohlupak]. This means exactly the same as the Greek expression – “the pot turns and finds its lid”.

But Bulgarian does not stop there. We can also find които си приличат, се привличат [koito si prilichat se privlichat], meaning “those who look alike attract each other”. And, my personal favourite, краставите магарета през девет баира се подушват [krastavite magareta prez devet baira se podushvat] , which translates as “Mangy donkeys smell themselves from nine mountains afar”.

This next expression was a close contender to be my favourite: Ta enney ec muc er muc elley. It is from Manx, and translates as “a pig knows another pig”

Finally, I rather like the expression in Russian: рыбак рыбака видит издалека [rybák rybaká vídit izdaleká], which means “a fisherman sees a fisherman from afar”. Last, but by no means least, an honourable mention goes to Belarus, where they use the expression Чорт чарта пазнаў i на пiва пазваў [Chort chorta paznau i na piva pazvau]. This translates as “An imp got acquainted with another imp and called him to have a beer together.” But of course. What else could an imp be expected to do?!

Bolt from the Blue

On the face of it, this might seem like a fairly obvious expression to trace. The “bolt” is of course a bolt of lightning, and the “blue” is the sky – the idea being that when the sky is blue and clear we don’t generally expect bolts of lightning!

The idiom has been linked with ancient mythology, where an angry god, such as Zeus or Jupiter, could be imagined hurling bolts of lightning from a clear sky to show his displeasure. Indeed, this idea has carried on today, with people joking that they may be “struck down” if they enter a church, and so on.

Let’s take a look at the earliest known example in writing:

cogor relictos: namque Diespiter
igni corusco nubila diuidens
plerumque, per purum tonantis
egit equos uolucremque currum

For Jupiter, Father of all the gods,

Who splits the clouds with his lightning,

Flashing away, drove thundering horses,

And his swift chariot, through the clear sky

This comes from Roman lyric poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), in his Ode XXXIV dating to around 23 BC.

The first translation into English of Horace’s Odes was in 1566 by Thomas Drant. As people became more and more familiar with the imagery, the idiom spread.

It first appears in its current form in English in The French Revolution by Thomas Carlyle from 1837, where he says:

…sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue…

Such casual use of the phrase suggests that this form was already in common use and generally well known, notwithstanding the fact that Carlyle was a well educated man who would have been familiar with Horace’s works.

The same idea is expressed in Swedish, with blixt från klar himmel, which translates as “lightning bolt from a clear sky”. This also extends to its geographic neighbouring language, albeit from a different language family, Finnish, in which you say salama kirkkaalta taivaalta, also meaning “lightning bolt from the clear sky”.  (Here, kirkas taivas  means “clear sky”, and this is an interesting example of how Finnish words use suffixes to build up meaning in one word, while these things are expressed with prepositions and other words in English.)

Over to Eastern Europe, Bulgarian uses a very similar expression, with Като гръм от ясно небе [kato gram ot iasno nebe], meaning “like thunder from a clear sky”. Fellow Slavic language Slovenian uses the same idea, with kot strela z jasnega, which also translates as “like a thunderbolt from a clear sky”, again representing something sudden or unexpected.

Hungarian is another one to use the same kind of expression, with derült égből villámcsapás, meaning “a thunderbolt from the clear sky”, while German also thinks along similar lines, with aus heiterem Himmel, which literally means “out of the clear sky”. Far away geographically, but close in thought comes Manx with haink eh myr taarnagh veih’n speyr; “thunder from the sky”.

We come now to Portuguese, which uses the idiom cair do céu, which means “falling from the sky”, which makes you think that something was so unexpected, it was like it had fallen from the sky. After all, things don’t generally fall from the sky!

There is a very interesting expression in Welsh used for something unexpected; fel huddyg i botes, which translates as “like soot into soup”. Evidently, this idiom dates from the days when everyone cooked over a real fire and soot may have fallen from the chimney into a bubbling pot. Indeed, especially with a careful cook, soot in soup is neither expected nor desired!

Personally, I rather like the equivalent expression in Japanese, which is nemimi ni mizu, meaning “cold water on a sleeping ear”. This brings to mind an amusing picture of a bucket of cold water being poured over the sleeper to wake them up. What a cheerful way to start the day!

Rule of Thumb

Before going into the origin of this phrase, I should first refer to the popular folk etymology that claims that it originates from English law, supposed to have stated that a husband may beat his wife with a rod no thicker than a thumb, thus the “rule of thumb”. There has never been such a law, and there are no references whatsoever to it in any legal documents. Even with the much maligned Judge Sir Francis Buller, who was supposed to have issued such a ruling in 1792, there are no records of his ever making such a pronouncement, and the first suggestion that he did came a full year later in a cartoon.

 

However, the phrase “rule of thumb” long predates Buller’s alleged and elusive ruling.

 

We can find it in its present form from the 1600s. An early example in print, from 1685, is in Durham’s Heaven Upon Earth:

 

Many profest Christians are like to foolish builders, who build by guess, and by rule of thumb.

 

However, the phrase is much older than that, and is very likely linked to the use of the thumb as a unit of measurement. Indeed, in a number of languages, “thumb” has long been related to the word for “inch”, such as Italian pollice, which means both, Spanish pulgada, “inch”, which derives from pulgar, meaning “thumb”, or Slovenian palec, which also means both.

 

If we go back further in English history, to the ninth century and Old English, we can find a reference to this idea:

 

Swá greáte swá ðín þúma

(As large as a thumb)

This is from Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of early England, a collection of writings published in the 1800s, dating back to the late ninth century. Already at that time the thumb was being used as a means of comparing size, and it is no great leap from “as large as a thumb” to “the rule of thumb”.

Thumbs are conveniently attached to us and conveniently small – it seems natural that they should have been routinely used for measurement. And of course, as we have seen with “inch”, this is hardly restricted to English, and there are expressions with the same idea in other places too. Swedish, for example, has tumregel, also meaning “rule of thumb”, while Finnish uses a similar expression with nyrkkisääntö, which translates as  “rule of fist”. German uses the same image, with Faustregel; “fist-rule”. Welsh uses synnwyr y bawd – “rule of thumb”.

Spanish does not use a thumb or hand related word, and instead prefers regla general, “general rule”, or also regla de oro, which translates as “golden rule”.

This brings me back onto German, and the expression Pi mal Daumen, or “Pi by the thumb”, a parody of a real calculation, if you like, for rough estimates or approximations. I do hope this is not a reflection of your maths lessons!

 

You can read about the etymology of thumb here.

It doesn’t have a leg to stand on

Despite its seemingly obvious metaphor, this has not proved to be an easy idiom to track down.

It is assumed to have come about through the literal idea of legs or feet supporting a body, holding it up, and it may have originally been a positive expression, conveying the notion of a lot of support, a firm grounding.

It may have come into Middle English from Old Norse, where it was indeed used in a positive manner. We can find it in the epic poem Egil’s Saga, dated to around 1220:

Stóð þá á mörgum fótum fjárafli Skalla-Gríms.

(Thus Skallagrim’s wealth had many legs to stand on) Egil-Skallagrim Ch. 29

The similarity between some of the English and Norse vocabulary may even have helped the expression to become absorbed more quickly into popular English speech – Old English stód (stood) is very much like the Norse stóð you see above, the verb “stand” was standa in Norse, standan in Old and Middle English. Our modern English word “leg” is related to Old Norse leggr, and “foot” in Old Norse was fótr.

Gradually, the expression came to be preferred in the negative, although it is sometimes used humorously today in the positive.

Naturally, the image of metaphorical standing is hardly restricted to English. Welsh uses exactly the same expression as in English, with dim coes i sefyll arni – it has no leg to stand.

Changing only the “leg” image, in modern Greek, you might say that an argument or idea doesn’t stand up: το επιχείρημα δε στέκει (to epiheirima de steki).

In Spanish, however, the expression is (something) no tiene de dónde agarrarse, which literally means “it has nothing to hold on to”.

Russian has a rather nice expression: ему́ не́чем крыть (jemú néčem krytʹ), which means “he has no good card to cover”.

Crying Wolf

For those who are unfamiliar with this expression, “to cry wolf” is generally used to mean “give a false alarm”, or “lie, complain about a situation when there are in fact no problems”.

It is a fairly easy idiom to trace, as it comes from a well-known source; Aesop’s Fables. One of the tales is called, quite simply, The Boy who Cried Wolf, although it is sometimes also known as “The shepherd boy and the wolf”, or “the boy who kept the sheep”. However, for our purposes, the main title immediately makes it clear where our idiom is from!

The fable tells of a boy whose task it was to watch over the sheep. However, he got bored doing this, and to liven things up a bit, he started calling out that there was a wolf attacking, so the villagers all ran to help, only to discover that the boy was playing a trick. This happened a few times before the villagers got fed up with the boy and his tricks, so when the next time a wolf really did attack the sheep and the boy cried out for help, they didn’t go, and some sheep were killed by the wolf.

Obviously, in this tale, it was the fact that the boy cried out “wolf!” several times and was lying that caused all the trouble, and of course, it is this that gave rise to our expression.

Interestingly, although the fable dates back to the 5th century BC in its original Greek, it was not translated into Latin until the 15th century, and does not appear in English until 1484, in a collection published by William Caxton under the title Of the child whiche kepte the sheep.

Unsurprisingly, English is not the only language to use this image in this context – the French equivalent means exactly the same: crier au loupNorwegian also uses the same phrase with rope ulv, as does Swedish with ropa varg. Again, in Italian, the fable has left its mark with gridare al lupo, just as in Romanian a striga lupul.

In Welsh, you would say gweiddi blaidd, which literally means “shout wolf”. Moving on to Irish Gaelic, we find gáir an mhic tíre a thógáil, meaning the same thing – mac tíre, which means “wolf”, literally translates “son of the land”.

Perhaps it is the structure of the Finnish language that makes it appear more complete: ken sutta huutaa; “he who cries wolf”.

Similarly, in Spanish, some people use the expression (it’s like) Pedrito y el lobo, signifying “Peter and the wolf”. Along the same lines, still from the fable, is the Bulgarian equivalent лъжливото овчарче (lajlivoto ovcharche) which means “the lying shepherd boy”.

German prefers a more literal approach, with falscher/blinder Alarm schlagen, “to sound a false alarm”, although a rarer phrase also exists; Zeter und Mordio schreien – “to scream for Zeter and Mordio (murder)”, it doesn’t necessarily convey the idea of a false alarm. (Further explanation here in German).

Slovenian also uses a plain phrase, akin to the German, with lažni alarm, which simply means “false alarm”.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

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!

A case of the pot calling the kettle black

This might seem an odd phrase to use today, in a modern kitchen, with no real fire and ash and soot, but when we consider its origins, it becomes obvious how it arose.

In a medieval kitchen, pots and kettles would have been made from cast iron, so that they would withstand the heat of a real fire and last a long time. Both pots and kettles would have been heated over a fire, where several factors would have contributed to making them black. Firstly, there is the most obvious accumulation of soot, but even more simply than that, cast iron would have gone black, with cooking oil, smoke, general wear and tear. It would have been extremely difficult to get rid of the discolouring completely, however much the pots and kettles were scrubbed, and black they tended to remain. Obviously, both pot and kettle were in a similar condition, so it would have been sheer hypocrisy for one to accuse the other of being black!

Pots and kettles were by no means the only way to express this idea. In 1606, Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida and gave Ulysses the line:

The raven chides blackness.” (Act II Scene III).

Here again, the idea is of colour, of black, being the issue. As we shall see, this was not always the case in other languages.

We first find a reference to kettles in this context in a translation into English by Thomas Shelton of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, from 1620:

You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avant, black-browes’.”

This suggests that the origin of the phrase is Spanish, and that it was adopted in English, perhaps coming to replace the earlier native phrase used by Shakespeare.

The first reference to the phrase in its current form came some 73 years later. It can be found in William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude, from 1693:

For a Covetous Man to inveigh against Prodigality… is for the Pot to call the Kettle black.

It has certainly proved a popular phrase, having stood the test of time and still in use today. Interestingly, an extremely similar expression is used in Lithuanian: juokiasi puodas, kad katilas juodas, which means “the pot laughs at the cauldron being black”. Not only that, but the Finnish idiom is also along the same lines; pata kattilaa soimaa, which means “the cauldron blames the saucepan”. Different language families notwithstanding, the image of pans, kettles, pots, cauldrons and similar utensils is indeed a strong one.

Also using pots is the Romanian phrase râde ciob de oală spartă, translating as “the shard laughs at the pot it fell from”. While one phrase used in Welsh is very much like the English one: y sosban yn galw’r tegell yn ddu – the saucepan calls the kettle black, there are also other options. My personal favourite is: “tinddu”, medd y frân wrth yr wylan, or “You are black! -said the crow to the seagull”. This one reminds me of the phrase quoted above from Shakespeare. But you can also use pentan yn gweiddi parddu, which means “the hob is shouting out soot”, a similar concept to the pots and kettles.

In modern Spanish, there are a few phrases. We’ll start with the somewhat macabre el muerto se ríe del degollado, meaning “the dead laughs at the one whose throat was slit”, and also el roto se ríe del descosido, which translates as “the broken laughs at the unstitched”. Mockery, it seems, is a popular theme in this type of idiom.

In French, a popular way to express this concept is l’hôpital qui se moque de la charité, which means “the hospital that makes fun of charity”.

On we go to German, where we find der muss sich an der eigene Nase fassen, which literally means “he must grasp his own nose”.

Another Celtic language, this time Manx Gaelic, where the expression might bring a chuckle: yn oghe gyllagh thoyn losht da’n aiee, which means “the oven calling the kiln burnt-arse”! No mincing words for Manx!

I rather like the expression in Greek: ο γάιδαρος είπε τον πετεινό κεφάλα (o gaidaros eipe ton peteino kefala), which translates as “the donkey called the rooster big-headed”.

Another language not using the pots and pans image is Bulgarian, with Присмял се хърбел на щърбел (Prismial se harbel na shtarbel), which translates as “the extremely skinny laughed at the extremely crooked” – they both have their problems, it seems to be saying.

Now to a language I haven’t posted before. In Hindi, you would say उल्टा चोर कोतवाल को डांटे, (Ulta chor kotwal ko dante), which means “the guilty thief scolding the innocent Police officer”. I love this one!

Thankyou to everyone who sent me expressions

The leopard cannot change its spots

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?”

Wild Goose Chase

These days, we think of a wild goose chase as being a pointless exercise, doing something that will lead us nowhere. You might think that the origin is obvious – after all, surely it’s difficult to chase and catch a wild goose – difficult to the point of being doomed and pointless from the start, perhaps. It seems a straightforward expression, at first glance. But this was not always the case.

The first known written instance of the expression is in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, from 1592. In Act 2, Scene 4, we find:

Romeo:  Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I’ll cry a match.

Mercutio:  Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.

We should take note here not just of Mercutio’s lines, where the expression is used, but also Romeo’s words immediately preceding Mercutio’s, and which Mercutio is responding to. In what context might we think of spurs, if not in relation to horse-riding? And indeed, this is the earlier meaning of our expression.

You are probably wondering where the resemblance is between geese and horses. The resemblance is in the formation a group of horses were lead in the chase – following a front horse, much like wild geese flying in a flock, each in its own place.

Now we return to the origins of the expression. As already stated, the earliest recorded reference is in Shakespeare. But that does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare introduced the expression to the language – it is much more likely that he was simply writing down a well known phrase, and its oral history may go back much earlier. It should be remembered that Shakespeare was writing for an audience, and I see no reason to believe that he wanted to confuse his spectators with strange, incomprehensible references.

If we look at other languages, we find some quite different expressions in this context. Firstly, in German, you might say ein Metzgergang machen, which literally means “make a butcher’s run”, as in the 18th century, butchers sometimes went to farmers for their stock and returned empty-handed, and similarly, sometimes their wares didn’t sell.

In Hungarian, when something is a futile undertaking, one would say: falra hányt borsó, which means “peas thrown at the wall”, the idea being that this is a totally pointless exercise, and in any case, peas just fall off the wall and don’t stick there, so you have gained nothing.

A nice expression to use in this context in Turkish, one which brings a lovely image to mind, is boşa kürek çekmek, which means “rowing on air”, obviously not a very fruitful activity, and a similarly fruitless exercise would be olmayacak duaya ‘amin’ demek, which means “saying ‘amen’ to a prayer that won’t be fulfilled”.

Over to Polish now, where the expression is szukanie wiatru w polu, which literally means “looking for wind in a field” – just as impossible to catch as a wild goose, if not more so, one might think!

While we are thinking about the wind, let’s take a look at this expression from Italian: correndo dietro un mulino a vento, literally “running after a windmill”, or an alternative might be fare brodo per gatti, “making broth for cats”, which perhaps says something about how cats are viewed!