‘Why is he blogging about this obscure proverb again?’ you might be asking.
5-minute read (but read carefully!)
The answer is: because it’s a mystery. Versions exist in several languages, a fact which suggests a common origin, perhaps in Latin, or even Greek, as is the case with many proverbs. That led me to channel my inner Sherlock. However, though I tracked down a couple of Latin versions, they look more like back-translations from the vernacular. Which raises the possibility that it just spread from one vernacular language to another.
Curiouser and curiouser, to coin a phrase. I deal with all that in the second part of this post.
Meanwhile, in the previous post about ‘Honey catches more flies than vinegar’ I said it seems to have passed into English from Italian in the third quarter of the seventeenth century. The person who first put it in print, Giorgio Torriano, I therein called ‘an Italian teacher’. That description rather sells him short. Perhaps ‘pedagogue’ would be sufficiently grand and accurate (but without the negative connotations that can cluster round the word.) For not only did he collect and publish proverbs – which merely requires a train-spotting bent of mind – he also wrote grammars of Italian for his audience.
Learning Italian in the UK is nowadays a minority pursuit. In contrast, in the late sixteenth century to know Italian was an important weapon in the intellectual armoury of the elite: Lady Jane Grey, Queen Elizabeth and James VI and I’s consort, Anne of Denmark, all knew la bella lingua. John Florio, the author of the first substantial Italian-English dictionary, was a groom of Queen Anne’s chamber and enjoyed a position at court. Torriano inherited Florio’s manuscripts and in 1639 published New and Easie Directions for attaining the Thuscan Italian tongue and the year after that The Italian Tutor.
The volume from which ‘Honey gets more flyes to it, than doth viniger’ was Torriano’s 1666 Piazza universale di proverbi Italiani, or, A common place of Italian proverbs and proverbial phrases digested in alphabetical order which provides the OED with a few dozen citations. One of them includes the first citation of the piquant idiom ‘His father was born before him‘, meaning he inherited wealth: The English something to that purpose say, of a rich man that never purchas’d his Estate, His Father was born before him.
Nowadays we might be tempted to think of proverbs as trite or clichéd and even take fully to heart Orwell’s injunction: ‘Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’1 But in Florio and Torriano’s day they were considered the summit of human wisdom. So much so that Florio included a staggering six thousand Italian proverbs in a supplement called Gardine of Recreation to his second Italian-teaching work Second Frutes.
The naughty-schoolboy-in-me-looking-up-rude-words-in-the-dictionary could not resist another Torrianism. Apparently, according to the OED, there was a phrase cricket-a-wicket cited only from Florio in the OED and meaning a bit of how’s your father. Torriano records this in a garbled form as ‘fare frit frit, to play Cricket, a cricket, to make the bed cry, jigga-joggy.’ An interesting use of the reduplicative possibilities of English. And fare frit frit has a ring to it.
Does the proverb exist outside English and Italian?
Yes, very much so. Read on.
As it happens, the Italian version which Torriano used is not recognised today. Il mele catta più mosche, che non fà l’aceto contains elements of dialect such as mele for miele while cattare meaning ‘to take’ has fallen out of use. The writers at an Italian Word of the Day site assured me that the modern version would be Si prendono più mosche con una goccia di miele che con un barile di aceto, (‘More flies are taken with a drop of honey than with a barrel of vinegar’) with variations in the verb and the quantities of both honey and vinegar. It gets over 100K hits on Google, not all of which are from dictionaries or in some other way metalinguistic. Those hits show the aforementioned variations in the verb (pigliare, acchiappare).
In the previous post I mentioned that seventeenth-century French had l’on prends plus de mouches avec une cuillerée de miel qu’avec cent barils de vinaigre (‘…with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels/casks of vinegar’).
The body responsible for promoting the Spanish language, the Instituto Cervantes – the equivalent if you like of the British Council – has a multilingual idiom collection. According to it, French has on prend plus de mouches avec du miel qu’avec du vinaigre. Searching for this on Google, however, suggests it was the original formulation but that nowadays it has many variants, such as on ne prend pas les mouches avec du vinaigre. Those are the only two forms listed in the Trésor de la Langue Française.
Spanish has the same proverb:
Más moscas se cogen con miel que con hiel(‘more flies are caught with honey than with bile’).
Given the taboo nature of coger in Latin America, there are variants such as se atrapan, se cazan and so forth, as well as in the quantities, as happens in Italian.
According to the Cervantes file, the expression exists in exactly the same form in Portuguese, Galician, Basque and Catalan. It also exists in a similar form in Greek: Περισσότερες μύγες πιάνεις με το μέλι παρά με το ξίδι (literally ‘more flies you catch with the honey than with the vinegar’).
The exception here seems to be German with its pork addiction: Mit Speck fängt Man mäuse (‘with ham you catch mice’).
Danish seems to have the more widespread version: du kan fange flere fluer med honning end med eddike (‘you can catch more flies with…’ the usual suspects)
Is there a Latin source?
The spread across languages made me wonder if there was a common Latin source.
It seems not – probably.
The only Latin I could find by Googling plures muscæ captantur (at a guess) retrieved aceto non captantur muscæ (‘with vinegar are not captured flies’), not classical, chronologically speaking, but from a Latin article by an eminent Dutch philologist in an academic journal of 1891. I presume it to be an on-the-spot translation back into Latin. But if so, then from which language? Dutch is the logical answer. And whadya know!
There in Dutch (so the Interweb informs me) is je/man vangt meer vliegen met (en lepel) honing/stroop dan met (en vat) azijn.
‘You/one can catches more flies with (a spoonful) [of] honey/syrup than with (a barrel) [of] vinegar.’
I can’t say how common it is, but the existence of Delft tiles (whether real or virtual I am not sure) suggests a certain spread.
But the plot thickens.
I then tried changing the Latin verb to capiuntur and lo and behold I get two hits on Google for melle, non aceto muscæ capiuntur, which means, guess what, ‘with honey not vinegar flies are caught.’
Those two citations come from the 1794 work of an eighteenth/nineteenth-century Croatian Latinist Georgius Ferrich (1739–1820) and prefaces one chapter (XXXI/31) in a collection of 113 Latin fables derived from Croatian (Fabulæ ab Illyricis adagiis desumptae, ‘Fables Selected from Croatian Proverbs’). The Croatian epigraph of the fable is Medom-se, ne ostom muhe hittaju, which is followed by melle, non aceto muscae capiuntur, meaning what you’d expect it to by now.
Job done for today. I can go home.
1 Orwell, George (1946). Politics and the English Language. http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200151.txt Accessed 17 May 2021.
“born, adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, oed.com/view/Entry/21674. Accessed 17 May 2021.
“cricket-a-wicket, adv.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, oed.com/view/Entry/44392. Accessed 17 May 2021.
“honey, n. and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2021, oed.com/view/Entry/88159. Accessed 17 May 2021.
Wikipedia, ‘Croatian Latin Literature’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croatian_Latin_literature. Accessed 17 May 2021.
Ferić, Đuro. (1794). Fabulæ. Electronic version available at http://www.ffzg.unizg.hr/klafil/croala/cgi-bin/getobject.pl?c.401:2:31.croala.392018. Accessed 17 May 2021.
Ferrich, Georgius (1794) [see previous]. In Corpus Corporum, at Zurich University.