8 Everyday Expressions That Have Their Origins in Aesop's Fables
Aesop and His Fables
According to legend and popular lore Aesop was a storyteller and collector of fables, who lived in ancient Greece around 600 BCE. Though there is no real evidence that Aesop ever actually existed there are more than 700 fables for which he is credited. These stories were collected over the centuries, in many volumes, and in may languages. Not meant for children, Aesop's fables were originally intended for an adult audience, as cautionary tales about politics and societies ills.
The first English edition of Aesop's Fables was printed by William Caxton, in 1484. This edition had been copied from an earlier edition in French, which, in turn, appears to have been copied from an even earlier edition in German. It wasn't until the 1700s that these fables became popular as children's stories, when philosopher John Locke advocated using them to teach morals to young people.
To this day Aesop's Fables are used to entertain and educate children. Many of the values they teach have become the values of western society, and many of the morals they convey have been encapsulated in our everyday expressions.
What follows are eight of the most popular of these everyday expressions, their meanings, and the fables from which they originate.
1. Don't Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch
"Don't count your chickens before they hatch", comes from the fable The Milkmaid and Her Pail. In this story a farmer's daughter is carrying milk to market in a pail on top of her head. Along the way she begins to daydream about what she will do with the profits from the sale of the milk. She imagines herself using the money to buy enough eggs to start a poultry farm. She then imagines herself using the profits from this venture to buy a fancy new gown to wear to the fair, and the attention that this new finery will get her from all the boys. While lost in the daydream she absentmindedly gives her hair a shake, which sends the milk spilling to the ground, and with it her dreams.
This tale is a caution against making plans with resources you do not yet have, or getting one's hopes up based on assumptions about what may happen, as this may well lead to disappointment.
2. Look Before You Leap
This common expression is a warning that one should never act rashly but should first consider all the possible outcomes and consequences. It comes from the fable The Fox and the Goat, in which a fox trapped in a well manages to coax a goat into leaping down there with him. Once the goat is in the well the fox climbs up onto its back, and uses this vantage point as a means of escape, leaving the goat trapped instead.
3. A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush
Some say the origins of this expression are in the sport of falconry. The thought here is that the falcon is the more valuable "bird in the hand" and the less valuable "two in the bush" are its potential prey. This is, however, false. The expression actually comes from the fable of The Hawk and the Nightingale.
In this story a nightingale finds itself caught in the talons of a hawk. The nightingale attempts to extricate itself from its predicament by trying to convince the hawk that it would be better off releasing him and pursuing potentially bigger birds that may be hiding in the bushes. The hawk responds to this by saying, "I should indeed have lost my senses...If I should let go food ready to my hand, for the sake of pursuing birds which are not yet even within sight". He then eats the nightingale.
The moral of this story is, of course, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush". It means that one should be satisfied with what one has, and not allow greed to cause one to risk loosing it in pursuit of something potentially greater, that may actually not even exist, or, if it does exist, be unobtainable.
4. Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
This everyday expression comes from the fable The Stag and the Lion. In this tale a stag finds itself being pursued by a pack of dogs. In an attempt to escape it runs into a cave, only to discover that the cave is occupied by a lion. The takeaway from this story is that it is better to turn and face your problems head on then to try and hide from them, as this may only make things worse.
5. A Man is Known by the Company He Keeps
It is commonly understood that, for the most part, people will associate with people who are like themselves, who have the same interests, morals and beliefs. A man who associates with fools is thought a fool, and a man who associates with wise people is thought wise. Thus, "A man is known by the company he keeps".
Aesop illustrates this in the fable "The Ass and His Purchaser". In this tale a farmer who wishes to purchase an ass takes one home on a trial bases. When he arrives at the farm he releases this new donkey into the pasture with the others, where it immediately takes up with the laziest donkey in the herd. The farmer returns the new donkey to the seller, explaining that the ass would be just as worthless as his choice of companion.
6. Birds of a Feather Flock Together
From the fable The Farmer and the Stork , this expression is a further reminder that we are known by the company we keep, and that we should be careful about with whom we choose to associate.
In this story a flock of cranes descends on a farmer's newly seeded field with the intention of eating the seed. The farmer casts a large net over the birds. His plan is to trap and kill them. When the farmer looks in his net he discovers that he has captured a loan stork along with the cranes. The stork pleads for his life, explaining to the farmer that he is different, a noble bird, and does not belong with these cranes. The farmer rejects the crane's arguments. His reasoning being that it was the stork's choice to take up with the cranes, therefore it will be treated the same as the cranes.
7. Honesty is the Best Policy
It is quite likely that just about everyone has heard, and most people have used, this everyday expression. This popular piece of advice comes from the fable Mercury and the Woodman.
In this story a poor woodman is chopping down a tree near a deep pool of water in the forest. It is late in the day and the woodman is tired from the day's labor. While attempting to fell the tree the woodman's ax slips from his hands, and falls into the pool. The woodman is terribly upset, as the ax is his only means of earning a living and he cannot afford to buy another. As the woodman stands by the water weeping the god Mercury appears. He asks the woodman what happened. On hearing the story Mercury dives into the water, from which he emerges three times, each time with a different ax. The first is a gold ax, which the woodman tells the god is not his. The second is a silver ax, which again the woodman says is not his. The third is the woodsman's own ordinary ax, which the woodman claims and thanks Mercury for. Mercury admires the woodman's honesty and rewards him with all three axes.
Returning home the happy woodman tells the people of his village the story. Several other woodman then go to the woods and hide their axes, pretending to have lost them in the pool, and cry to Mercury for help. Mercury shows up, and to each man offers the golden ax, which each in turn claims is his own. Mercury rewards their dishonesty with a knock on the head, and sends them home. When the woodmen return to the forest the next day they discover that their own axes are missing.
8. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
This everyday expression comes from what is perhaps Aesop's best known, and most often told fable. There is likely not a children's book publisher, or animation company, including such big names as Disney and Warner Brothers, that have not published or produced some version of this tale. It is a story very familiar to everyone. A slow but steady tortoise challenges a boastful, speedy hare to a race from which the tortoise emerges victorious. Though the hare is faster the tortoise wins because he is consistent, steady, and determined.
Other Common Expressions
These are just eight of the many everyday expressions that come from Aesop's Fables. Others that will be familiar to almost everyone include: "Quality is better than quantity", "Pride comes before the fall", "Don't make a mountain out of a molehill", "Taking the lion's share", "Necessity is the mother of invention", "It's easy to kick a man when he's down", and many, many more. With 725 Fables, translated into so many languages throughout the world, even people who have never heard of Aesop or his fables will readily recognize many of the everyday expressions which have become so familiar.
© 2018 Stephen Barnes