Famous Sayings: #23 — ‘Never Bite the Hand…’

August 14, 2016

Never bite the hand that feeds you.

never bite the hand, that feeds you, biting the hand that feeds you, puppy biting

This post ties into the posts I made last week. In fact, I had decided to make these posts because of the connection they share. I will get into that later on in this post.

For now, let’s look into the origin and meaning of “never bite the hand that feeds you.”


What is the Origin of This Phrase?

From my search, I found a number of citations.

Dub Mowry mentioned the Greek poet Sappho, who lived around 600 B.C., as a source for the expression. Supposedly, he said, “Never bite the hand that feeds you.” It seems this was corroborated on Dictionary.com, which cited the American Heritage Dictionary. Mowry surmised that the saying could have existed some time before Sappo’s time.

However, it was impossible for me to find any quotes from Sappho like “Never bite the hand that feeds you.” Much of her poetry was erotic or amorous in nature.


So, Where Else Was the Phrase Used?

When I began my modest search, the first result I found was a short text on the Ginger Software website. What is Ginger Software? Funnily enough, this is a website I had visited before when I was looking at blogging tools. This website has a free and premium downloadable software that helps writers check their spelling and grammar. It also comes with a dictionary.

Anyway, on the page in question, it reads that the phrase was used in the 18th century by Edmund Burke. Here is a snippet where the phrase could be found:

Having looked to government for bread, on the first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them.

After consulting other sources, I went back and looked into Burke’s usage of phrase. It turns out the work in which that snippet can be found is called Thoughts and Details of Scarcity. I found the text on the Internet Archive. Here’s a bigger block of text for more context (it has been edited for modern English):

This example of Rome which has been derived from the most ancient times, and the most flourishing period of the Roman empire (but not of the Roman agriculture) may serve as a great caution to all Governments, not to attempt to feed the people out of the hands of the magistrates. If once they are habituated to it, though but for one half-year, they will never be satisfied to have it otherwise. And, having looked to Government for bread, on the very first scarcity they will turn and bite the hand that fed them. To avoid that evil, Government will redouble the causes of it; and then it will become inveterate and incurable.

In short, Burke argued that a system in which the government gives to the people — even if it helps those who are less fortunate — would lead to dependency. When put that way, you can tell how Burke was aligned politically. Nowadays, this type of argument is mainly uttered by conservatives, around the world.

From epoch times, I found that the saying existed in some form in Ancient China, during the Western Han Dynasty. Zhang Chang, a highly distinguished scholar, served as a governor in the Metropolitan district. He was also an advisor to Emperor Xuan of Han.

There were two incidents noted in the article about Zhang. One day, one of his friends, Yang Yun, criticized his leadership. Yang was thus put to death. One of Zhang’s advisors, Xu Shun, was also put to death after refusing to investigate a theft and spreading rumors that Zhang’s tenure as governor was coming to an end.

Zhang was dismissed from his role after Xu’s death, but he would be reinstated after the district fell into lawlessness. Zhang explained why he ordered Xu’s death. As part of the explanation, the saying emerged.

The Chinese Proverb 忘恩負義 (“Wàng ēn fù yì”) roughly translates to “to bite the hand that feeds you.” The literal meaning is “to forget favors and betray justice.”


What Does “Never Bite the Hand That Feeds You” Mean?

The meaning is easy to surmise, when you see it in usage. But here is a definition from Cambridge:

bite the hand that feeds you

to act badly towards the person who is helping or has helped you

Wherever you look, the common description is ungratefulness and lack of prudence.

Given the story above from the Western Han Dynasty, that was pretty clear.


How Does This Idiom Apply Today?

Usually, when you think of “biting the hand that feeds you,” the discussion may involve an employer.

Mowry offered a general example to support this meaning: Let’s say you want to criticize your boss. Whether or not your boss has a good leadership style, it’s not very wise to badmouth your employer at work. Word could get back to your boss and you could find yourself out of a job.

That said, TV shows are often allowed to “bite the hand that feeds them.” For instance a number of FOX shows have taken jabs at the network. These shows include Married with Children, The Simpsons, and Family Guy. In these cases, it was understood that the shows did so in jest.

In other terms, there have been celebrities who have badmouthed the projects they worked on. One famous example is Katherine Heigl. Once “Isabel Stevens” on Grey’s Anatomy, Heigl took her name from Emmy consideration because she said that the material she received that year wasn’t good enough. After working on the Seth Rogen comedy “Knocked Up,” she tore apart the plot and general ideas behind it. (Although I basically agree with that criticism, it was poor form.)

In other instances, I would say that the idiom has kind of been turned on its head. Which groups “bite the hand that feeds them” when there are add odds with each other: citizens or authority figures? What about voters and politicians? How about TV networks and sports organizations? In these cases the groups with more power generally receive public funds.

I would argue that this year has featured a lot of people biting the hands that feed them, at least in terms of support and good will. In supporting certain candidates, certain people have dumped on parts of their audience and some parties have subverted the will of the people be background actions.


Works Cited

“Bite the hand that feeds you | Define Bite the hand that feeds you on Dictionary .com.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, LLC. Web. Retrieved 14 Aug 2016. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you>.

“bite the hand that feeds you Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge Univeristy Press. Web. Retrieved 14 Aug 2016. <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you#translations>.

Burke, Edmund. Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. Nov 1795. Print. Pg. 31.

Choo, Lilly. “Chinese Idiom: To Bite the Hand That Feeds You (忘恩負義).” Epoch Times. August 30, 2013. Web. Retrieved 14 Aug 2016. <http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/268936-chinese-idiom-bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you-%E5%BF%98%E6%81%A9%E8%B2%A0%E7%BE%A9/>.

“Never Bite The Hand That Feeds You.” Ginger Software. Web. Retrieved 14 Aug 2016. <http://www.gingersoftware.com/content/phrases/never-bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you/#.V7CXZlsrLIW>.

Mowry, Dub. “Never bite the hand that feeds you.” The Daily Tribune. 3 June 2014. Web. Retrieved 14 Aug 2016. <http://www.dailytribune.net/opinion/never-bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you/article_0b5f935a-eb6d-11e3-b769-0019bb2963f4.html>.

“Thoughts and details on scarcity, originally presented to the Right Hon. William Pitt, in the month of November, 1795.” Internet Archive. Web. Retrieved 14 Aug 2016. <https://archive.org/stream/thoughtsanddeta00pittgoog#page/n51/mode/2up>.

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3 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #23 — ‘Never Bite the Hand…’

  1. Pingback: Biting the hand that feeds you | A Front Row View of The Church

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