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Say What? Familiarity Breeds Contempt / Good Fences Make Good Neighbours

Welcome to another edition of Say What? where we look at the origin of different sayings and proverbs. This time our sayings relate to familiarity and closeness, and I'll be using characters from Person of Interest in my examples.


Familiarity breeds contempt

While not explicitly used by Aesop, the concept of this saying is often attached to his short tale about the fox and the lion. In the story, the first time the fox sees the lion it runs away, the second time it watches from a safe distance, and the third time it walks right up to the lion and passes the time of day before turning tail and walking away. The original moral for the story was about acquaintance overcoming fear, but in in Jeffreys Taylor's 1820 publication Aesop in Rhyme he linked our first saying to Aesop's story and that's how it's still presented today in most sources.

The first recorded version of the saying is in Saint Augustine's Scala Paradisi. In that work Augustine says 'vulgare proverbium est, quod nimia familiaritas parit contemptum' which translated says 'it is a common proverb, that too much familiarity breeds contempt'. The first more recent usage was by Geoffrey Chaucer in Tale of Melibee from 1386 where he says:

Men seyn that over-greet hoomlynesse engendreth dispreisynge
Putting that in modern English, 'over-great familiarity engenders disparagement'.

By 1928, D.H. Lawrence had included the current form of the expression in Phoenix II, which says:

We say ... Familiarity breeds contempt ... That is only partly true. It has taken some races of men thousands of years to become contemptuous of the moon.
Using this in your own writing should be fairly straight forward, as I've done here:

"I'd forgotten that you could move so quietly, Mr Reese," Harold huffed in frustration.
John shrugged, "Familiarity breeds contempt."

Good fences make good neighbours

Our second saying is much more modern in origin, with the first recorded usage being in E. Rogers' 1640 Letter included in Winthrop Papers:

A good fence helpeth to keepe peace between neighbours; but let vs take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keepe vs from meeting
Robert Frost wrote in 'Mending Wall' included in his 1914 poetry collection North of Boston:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
As you can see, this saying implies that, in order for neighbours to get along, they need a some sort of separation between them. Whether that's a physical fence to prevent children or pets moving freely from one yard to another, or some sort of implied boundary, the fact of separation allows people to get along better.

Like the previous saying, this is a commonly known and understood expression and should be fairly easy for you to use.

John looked at the wall of files and equipment that Fusco had built between their desks. "Need to do some housekeeping, Lionel?"
Fusco shook his head. "Good fences make good neighbours, partner."

And that's it for this week. I hope that you now understand both these expressions a little better and can find a way to work them into whatever you're doing. But be careful how you use them because, as you know, familiarity breeds contempt, and that can lead to errors.


Sources
Wikipedia
Lit2Go
Simpson, John and Speake, Jennifer, A Dictionary of Proverbs, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Taggert, Caroline, An Apple a Day, Readers Digest, 2011.

Tags: !say what, author:chiroho, language:colloquial, language:old-fashioned
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