Five-minute read, and worth every second of your very valuable time. (Which is rather less time than it took me to write it.)
The other day someone on Twitter referenced the proverb “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” They didn’t use the phrase in that standard form but played with it: “somewhere out there a sow is missing an ear”, meaning that someone had indeed tried to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. This set me thinking about several questions: what the phrase actually means, how old it is, where it comes from and how the idea it encapsulates might be expressed in other languages.
Where’s it from?
The English phrase could well be Scottish in origin, if that isn’t an oxymoron. A variant first appeared in 1518 in The Egloges (Eclogue v. 360) by the Scottish renaissance poet Alexander Barclay (?1475-1552).1 Barclay’s version is none can … make goodly silk of a gote’s fleece. It wasn’t until 1579 that it first appeared in what I will pompously call its “canonical” form (purely because for some weird reason that’s a phrase I relish): Seekinge … too make a silk purse of a Sowes eare (S. Gosson, Ephemerides of Phialo).
By 1672 it was current enough to be included in W. Walker’s Dictionary of English and Latin proverbs, and the 1699 A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew (a slang dictionary of the time) claims it to be Scottish, and even puts it under the entry for luggs (nowadays lugs), which is Scots for “ear” (though informal and regional English has “lugholes”). Ye can ne [cannot] make a Silk-Purse of a Sowe’s Luggs, a Scotch Proverb. (Incidentally, to file a proverb under its very last word would nowadays be lexicographically eccentric.)
The citations following that in the OED are not from Scottish sources, with the exception of a 12 July 1812 letter from Sir Walter Scott to Byron, in which he writes “I am labouring here to contradict an old proverb, and make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” referring to his attempts to create a farm out of unforgiving terrain. However, not cited in the OED is its appearance in the 1776 A collection of Scots proverbs, more complete and correct than any heretofore published as “Ye canna make a silk purse of a sow’s lug” by the poet Allan Ramsay.
What does it mean?
Another question raised in my mind was whether people below a certain age would get the reference. For example, sometimes when I’ve used a phrase with my niece, who is in her early forties, she will say “That’s a phrase mum would use”, meaning that she herself and people her age wouldn’t. People certainly google it to see what it means, suggesting that, unlike you, gentle reader, they are in the dark about it. And if they do google it, they’re likely to find a definition that runs along the lines of “you can’t produce something good, beautiful or fine from naturally inferior or ugly materials.”
To my mind, that style of definition suggests you can only use the phrase about objects, not people, which is manifestly not so. The four most modern OED citations are all about people, including this from 1978: She and her colleagues in the teaching profession are expected to turn children like that into silkpurses, able to count, to spell, to read, to write, to understand, and so on. Jrnl. Royal Soc. Arts 126 339/2
The proverb is alive and kicking, for example, in the Global Corpus of Web-based English with 154 examples, the UK being the highest flesh-to-luxury-fabric converter. (“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has with 155 almost exactly the same number.)
Equivalents in other languages
The next question is, how do other languages express this idea? One can never assume or take for granted that an idiom or proverb in one language has an equivalent in another. (And still less that that other language will use the same images.) However, looking at a small selection of languages it turns out that a similar idea is indeed “lexicalized”. That fact could point to a set of reactions—if not universal, at least widespread—to given social situations.
I looked at Oxford Dictionaries’ versions for French, Italian, German and Portuguese. They don’t list one for Spanish, but I will offer my own, which is a phrase I first heard an Argentine friend use years ago and it always conjures up a rather colourful image in my mind. Here are the literal translations followed by the original language.
One point that emerges clearly—at the risk of stating the obvious—is that the proverbs offered as equivalents do not necessarily have the same extension, in the logical sense, or range of application as the English. For example, while the English applies to things and people, the Spanish and French look as if they apply to people only.
Spanish: A monkey, for all that it dresses in silk, is a monkey and a monkey it will stay. El mono por más que se vista de seda, mono es y mono queda. (Note the rhyme.)
Or, if you want an English rhyme and an invented proverb, A monkey, even if dressed in silk, still belongs to the monkey ilk.
French: The herring barrel will always smell of herring. La caque sent toujours le hareng.
(glossed on the Fr-Eng side as ‘you can’t hide your origins’)
A friend who is an expert in the field suggests that a closer equivalent is “You can’t make flour from a sack of bran”, On ne peut pas tirer de la farine d’un sac de son, but it’s really rather rare.
Italian: Offers two options–You can’t get blood out of a turnip. Non si cava sangue da una rapa
The cask gives the wine it has. La botte dà il vino che ha (note that here’s another rhyme)
Portuguese: A stick [i.e trunk or stem] that is born crooked never will straighten up/dies crooked. Pau que nasce torto nunca se endireita/pau que nasce torto morre torto.
German: Out of a pig’s ear no silk bag/purse can be made. Aus einem Schweinsohr lässt sich kein seidener Beutel machen.
Now, is the German a loan from English, or vice versa? Or do they have a common source? Finally, my Greek correspondent tells me that there doesn’t, to her knowledge, seem to be anything equivalent in Modern Greek, while my Croatian informant suggests “[can’t] make gold from mud” praviti od blata zlato.
Finally, my ever-helpful Irish correspondent points out that the Irish Cuir culaith shíoda ar ghabhar, is gabhar i gcónaí é, translated as “Put a silk suit on a goat, it’s always (still) a goat”, bears a strong resemblance to the Spanish.
1 Barclay’s Egloges are adaptations of Latin originals written by Italian renaissance scholars including Pope Pius II, who not only visited (and hated) Scotland before he became Pope but also managed to sire a child here. (Which raises the fascinating prospect of a renaissance Pope having several hundred modern descendants in Scotland!) The Barclay Eclogue (v) in which the proverb appears is based on the fifth and sixth Eclogues of the Italian poet and humanist Baptista Mantuanus (1447-1516), who exerted a major influence on sixteenth-century British authors, is cited by Holofernes in Love’s Labours Lost and was known simply as “Mantuan”. It is interesting that Barclay’s paraphrase seems to be a very early example of this influence. A quick skim of the relevant Mantuan eclogues did not reveal any obvious set phrases borrowed by Barclay, and so it would seem the proverb was his inspired invention, and his alone.