I’m my own worse enemy, I really am
In the previous blog, I mentioned the eggcorn ‘own worse enemy’, and raised various questions about the original version ‘to be one’s own worst enemy’:
- What is its origin?
- Are there similar idioms in other European languages? and…
- My example has plural concord (Scotland are their own worse enemy) but enemy is singular. So, how often do people say ‘enemies’ in such cases
For reasons which I hope will become clear, I’ll start with 2.
Is there a similarly worded idiom in other European languages?
Yes, in several.
(Handily, Oxford bilingual dictionaries online seem to cover the same source language (English) items, which makes comparison delightfully easy.)
For French/Italian/Portuguese and Spanish there is a word-for-word equivalent:
être son pire ennemi;
essere il peggiore nemico di se stesso;
ela é o seu pior inimigo;
su peor enemigo es ella misma (Last two are equivalent to she’s her own worst enemy.)
German doesn’t mirror the Romance languages, and instead has niemandem schaden als sich selbst ‘to harm nobody other than oneself‘.
But, perhaps curiously, Russian mirrors the Romance languages: он сам себе злейший враг,
‘He himself to himself is his worst/most ferocious enemy’.
Now, has this same image/metaphor occurred to different people at different times in different languages, both Romance and Slavic?
It goes without saying that languages borrow whole phrases from each other (‘It goes without saying’ is a loan-translation from French ça va sans se dire). But if a phrase spreads over several languages, it inevitably raises the suspicion that there must be a common source.
‘To be one’s own worst enemy’ sounds like a time-honoured cliché. And where would one look for a common source for t-h clichés? To our linguistic alma mater, Latin, of course.
Where does the phrase come from?
Searches in several sources were initially fruitless because they did not even give the phrase pageroom. However, Garner’s Modern American Usage puts it in a list of must-avoid clichés, the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms has it, and, finally, the Penguin Dictionary of Clichés (also known as The Cat’s Pyjamas) suggests that it goes back to ‘Greek and Roman times’, an ancestry which is frustratingly vague.
sed tamen nihil inimicius quam sibi ipse; Cicero, ad Atticum X. 12a.
Word for word, that is ‘but still, nothing is more harmful than to himself he himself’, which sounds a bit like a poor back-translation from Klingon, or Yoda’s version of ‘He’s his own worst enemy.’
Yet, lo and behold (a phrase that never actually appears in the Bible, despite its pseudo-biblical patina), a translation of Cicero’s letter renders the Latin as ‘he has no worse enemy than himself’, which seems remarkably close to the modern, clichéd version.
Beyond Cicero, I can venture no further, though Google, that propagator of wrongly attributed quotes, suggests an Aristotelian origin.
They’re their own worst enemy
In the original eggcorn that led me down the primrose path of this particular phrase, we had ‘Scotland are their own worse enemy’. For American readers I suspect the plural verb reads oddly in any case, since collectives regularly take a singular verb in U.S. usage. But here what intrigued me was the singular enemy; the sentence seems to be totally AC/DC as regards singular/plural: collective + plural verb + plural possessive + singular complement.
On a strict interpretation of concord, could it be argued that their should be followed by enemies? Probably. But then the thought occurs that enemy itself has a collective meaning (1.1) that allows both singular and plural verb concord, e.g. the enemy are/is already upon us.
In one small corpus, a search for ‘their own worst enem.*’ had the two variants neatly and exactly balanced. In a larger one, enemies was preponderant in a ratio of 132:73. Below is an example of each kind.
Do France’s squabbling Socialists have a future? Lately, the Socialists have looked like their own worst enemies.
A whole generation of people has been lost. Ultimately, the terrorists are their own worst enemy. The utopian goals most terrorist organizations set leave their foes few options.
I can discern no difference between them.
All I can see is PLURAL SUBJ + PLURAL VERB + their + own.
So, is this in the end a classic case of linguistic free variation?