Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 16, 2011

Political strategist, Ralph Reed, was quoted in the “Hotline” column of  The National Journal on July 27, 1999 as having said:

There is a sense in presidential politics that familiarity breeds contempt. There is a time and a place to pet the pigs and kiss the babies, but that comes a little bit later.

The phrase, familiarity breeds contempt, has been used quite a bit over the years and even 100 years ago, the phrase was part of every day language as seen in the article “Advice On How To Keep A Servant” written by E.T. Stedman and published in the New York Times on August 6, 1901.

There should be sympathy and politeness on both sides, yet, while always remembering the Golden Rule, the mistress should also remember that ” familiarity breeds contempt.” We cannot do without a kitchen stove, still it is not to be placed with the piano In the parlor.

From November 1867 through to June 1868, Anthony Trollope — one of the most successful, prolific and respected English novelists of the Victorian era — wrote “He Knew He Was Right” and saw it published in 1869.  In this book, he wrote:

Perhaps, if I heard Tennyson talking every day, I shouldn’t read Tennyson. Familiarity does breed contempt.

However, more than 200 years before Anthony Trollope, Thomas Fuller wrote and published “Comment On Ruth.” Even though it was published in 1654, it was, in fact, one of Thomas Fuller‘s earliest compositions and was delivered by Thomas Fuller at St. Benet’s in Cambridge as far bas as 1630.  In printed form, readers find the following:

With base and sordid natures familiarity breeds contempt.

Richard Taverner wrote the book “Garden of Wisdom” published in 1539 and in this book he wrote:

Hys specyall frendes counsailled him to beware, least his ouermuche familiaritie myght breade him contempte.

However, Chaucer wrote how familiarity breeds contempt in his Tale of Melibee published in 1386.  The word “hoomlynesse” means familiarity and the word “dispreisynge” means contempt.  It is easy, therefore, to see that the following is an early version of the phrase:

Men seyn that ‘over-greet hoomlynesse engendreth dispreisynge’.

However, nearly 400 years before Chaucer, in Scala Paradisi, it is St. Augustine who is credited for having said:

Vulgare proverbium est, quod nimia familiaritas parit contemptum.

And before, St. Augustine, it was Roman philosopher, rhetorician and satirist Lucius Apuleis (124 – 170 A.D.) who is credited for having written:

Familiarity breeds contempt, while rarity wins admiration.

Ultimately, however, the moral “familiarity breeds contempt” is from Aesop (620 – 564 BC) and his fable, The Fox and the Lion.

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One Response to “Familiarity Breeds Contempt”

  1. Sylvain Lavergne said

    Excellent research! However I would not bet my house on Aesop being the oldest to use the moral “familiarity breeds contempt” as many people rewrote his work much later and interpreted the moral in their own way (if I’m correct it was Samuel Croxall in his The Fables of Aesop in 1722 who gave a social interpretation to Aesop’s story of the Lion and the Fox) although the moral “familiarity breeds contempts” hardly fits with the Aesop’s tale of the Fox and the Lion. So I guess the oldest we have for sure is Apuleis.

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