Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

A Leopard Can’t Change His Spots

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 15, 2013

You’ve probably heard someone say that a leopard can’t change his spots before and what it means is that no matter how hard someone may try to change that true nature, they’ll never succeed in changing who they are naturally. It’s another way of saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  As Popeye was famous for saying: “I am what I am.”

For example, in the August 25, 2008 edition of the Mirror, a quick write-up was provided about the upcoming episode of Coronation Street (a popular British soap opera). Summing it up in two lines, Jane Simon wrote:

A leopard can’t change its spots and it looks like Tyrone was right to be suspicious about his mum Jackie having turned over a new leaf. After Tyrone and Molly spend a worried night in the car waiting for Jackie to return, Tyrone’s mood turns to anger when she crows about pulling yet another scam.

In Sports Editor, Al Abrams’ column “Sidelights On Sports” published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 17, 1950, sports fans were abuzz about was Ezzard “No Hazard” Charles, the NBA heavyweight king of boxing. It was said that he fought just enough to win without taking unnecessary risks which cost him in box office appeal and popularity with what Abrams called “members of slug society who pay the fright to see him in action.” Throwing in his two cents worth, he wrote:

Ezzard, no hazard, like the leopard, can’t change his spots. There’s no denying he is a good fighter, the best heavyweight around until the night the aged Louis proves otherwise, but he could be a far greater and exciting one if he’d just “give” a little more. That he never will. We’re all convinced of that.

The Jeffersonian Gazette of November 1, 1900 had a similar take on the subject of politics in an article entitled, “Party vs. Principles.”  The story led off with this paragraph:

It is an old saying, that it is difficult for the leopard to change his spots. It semes from actual experience that it is almost as difficult for the old time republican to leave his party. With many of us upon whom party affiliation sits lightly; what we mean is that we care nothing for the name, it is principles we want; we can’t fully appreciate how a man who voted for Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, and that long line of illustrious heroes and statesmen, now dead,will put so much stress upon a party name.

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer states that it was first recorded in English in 1546, but no source was provided. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t first recorded in English in 1546, only that Idiomation has not identified what that source may be.

What Idiomation could confirm is that a version of the idiom is found in the Bible in Jeremiah 13:20-25 where it states:

20 Lift up your eyes, and behold them that come from the north: where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?

21 What wilt thou say when he shall punish thee? for thou hast taught them to be captains, and as chief over thee: shall not sorrows take thee, as a woman in travail?

22 And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare.

23 Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.

24 Therefore will I scatter them as the stubble that passeth away by the wind of the wilderness.

25 This is thy lot, the portion of thy measures from me, saith the Lord; because thou hast forgotten me, and trusted in falsehood.

The Book of Jeremiah in the Bible was written between 630 and 580 BC, at a time when the Law Of The Medes and Persians was a forgone conclusion. The Mede were an Indo-European people who inhabited ancient Media, and who had established an empire during the 7th century. And as with the law of the Medes and Persians, it was believed that the laws of nature could not be altered or changed either.

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