January 6, 2018
I like to keep most of my co-workers at arm’s length because, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt.
Today, I thought I’d go with a phrase that is itself very familiar (although very cynical). On some level, this theme is connected to the posts I made this week on the subject of hype (I’ll explain). Yet for the most part, it’s a comment on human nature and interpersonal relationships.
Who First Said, ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’?
From the numerous sources I consulted, two sources were named as the possible origin: Aesop and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Geoffrey Chaucer was credited as being the first to use the phrase (at least in writing, although that may be incorrect). Regardless, Chaucer’s use of the phrase can be found in his work Tale of Melibee (1386).
Men seyn that ‘over-greet hoomlynesse engendreth dispreisynge.’
In this case “hoomlynesse” means familiarity and “dispresisynge” means “contempt” (Bruce).
However, the idea behind the phrase was around for thousands of years.
In a blog post from February 16, 2011, Elyse Bruce shared a few historical examples of the phrase “Familiarity breeds contempt” in use, but in reverse chronological order. Bruce ultimately concluded that Aesop (620-564 B.C.) can be credited with the phrase (as found in the Fox and the Lion). However, as the sole commenter on Bruce’s post pointed out, Aesop’s works were adapted and reinterpreted.
The following quote comes at the end of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Lion,” based on the traditional English translations of the tale (via Quote/Counterquote):
When first the Fox saw the Lion he was terribly frightened, and ran away and hid himself in the wood. Next time however he came near the King of Beasts he stopped at a safe distance and watched him pass by. The third time they came near one another the Fox went straight up to the Lion and passed the time of day with him, asking him how his family were, and when he should have the pleasure of seeing him again; then turning his tail, he parted from the Lion without much ceremony.
The moral of the story is “Familiarity breeds contempt.” What I quoted above might be the Eliot/Jacobs version, but there was no moral attached to it when multiple versions were shown at Fables of Aesop.
Some Other Quotes
There were a few examples of the phrase being used between the time of Aesop and Chaucer.
Lucius Apuleis, who lived in Ancient Rome from 124 to 170 A.D., was quoted as saying this:
Familiarity breeds contempt, while rarity wins admiration.
Pope Innocent III repeated the expression over 1,000 years after Pulilius (Writing).
St. Augustine, the patron saint of brewers, who lived from 354-480 A.D. wrote the following in Scala Paradisi.
Vulgare proverbium est, quod nimia familiaritas parit contemptum.
This translates to, “It is a common proverb, that too much familiarity breeds contempt” (“Say What?”).
What Does the Phrase Mean?
The phrase could have multiple meanings, depending on who is speaking, but the primary meaning is easily deciphered. In general, the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt” means that the more people know about each other, the more they dislike each other. Basically, the longer people know each other, the longer they will see the flaws in each other; this could lead to resentment.
As pointed out at Writing Explained, the phrase applies to things, too. For example, a person can get bored as they do the same things over. In that case, a change of pace is needed.
What Are Some Other Meanings?
When you go by the translations of “The Fox and the Lion,” the word “contempt” could take on a different meaning.
For Example: From The Phrase Finder
On October 4, 2007, a user named Karyl asked what the phrase “Familiarity breeds contempt” meant. There were two meaningful answers to the question.
Bruce Kahl’s response to the OP held to the primary meaning:
Means that the better we know a thing or person, the more we want to howl and pluck out their eyes. Uh, not howl and pluck out their eyes, I mean find fault with them.
But Smokey Stover’s response to Bruce Kahl had a few interesting tidbits (emphasis mine):
Well, yes. But mostly it means one of a few other things. 1) We don’t recognize what a good thing (or person) we have because we see it (or he/her) every day. Our close acquaintance blinds us to the value of what we have. Like a prophet not without honor except in his own country.
2) When using tools, or engaging in other highly dangerous activities, we discount the danger because we are used to it. We fail to remain safe by remaining fearful, or at least, respectful, of the harm that can come from our familiar tools or our familiar activities. A prime example is the farmer who raises corn and shreds it before blowing it up into the top of the silo. The shredder frequently gets jammed. Routinely unjamming it every day makes the farmer careless, until he or his son gets a hand caught and shredded, not a rare occurrence.
3) If a boss or aristocrat is familiar with his underlings, they may lose the necessary degree of respect. Ditto with the mistress and her maids. Ditto with the sargeant and the men, the lieutenant and the NCOs. It’s lonely at the top.
From William Hazlitt (in Chapter 1 of Table-Talk)
I found this quote via Wikiquote, but it describes me somewhat:
For a person to read his own works over with any great delight, he ought first to forget that he ever wrote them. Familiarity naturally breeds contempt.
What Do I Think About This Famous Saying?
On the whole, I agree and disagree with the idea that “familiarity breeds contempt,” based on the circumstances.
In the ways described by Smokey Stover, I agree that familiarity can cloud our judgment. If we become contemptible, we would essentially lose respect for the inherent dangers of certain situations or the respect for our roles in work relationship (although I feel that it is best for workers and their employers to have a rapport).
Regarding People & Relationships …
I disagree that familiarity on its own could lead to contempt. Usually, there are some underlying problems there.
In a post from 2010, Mel Schwartz, L.C.S.W., explained why familiarity in relationships didn’t breed contempt. In short, contempt arises when people become complacent and draw away from their partners. In comparison, familiarity it what’s needed to have any level of intimacy in a romantic relationship and to fall in love in the first place.
That reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain, as recorded in his journal in 1894 and published posthumously in Notebooks (1935):
Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.
Overall, I agree with Schwartz. And the following quotes also explain why familiarity is important.
Daniel Katz, a professor of history at the City University of New York (CUNY), and wrote this in his 2012 book entitled Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America).
Just as unfamiliarity breeds fear, an intimate introduction to multiple cultures breeds trust.
The following quote can be found in the second chapter of The Affluent Society, a 2008 book written an American economist named John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006).
Familiarity may breed contempt in some areas of human behavior, but in the field of social ideas it is the touchstone of acceptability. Because familiarity is such an important test of acceptability, the acceptable ideas have great stability.
Some people who are too familiar can wear on you. That is why I made that short series of posts this week: When people are being hyped up, like celebrities are, they and their fans are in everyone’s face a lot. Others can get sick of them really quick.
Regarding Things …
I agree that the too much of one thing can be exasperating. Every now and then, I need to take a break (from programs) in order to start fresh and get more done. It’s hard for me to stick to a routine (outside of work).
Additionally, a familiarity with things can lead us to take things for granted and hold contempt for other things.
The following quote comes from Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), in a book-length essay entitled Heaven and Hell (1956).
Familiarity breeds indifference. We have seen too much pure, bright color at Woolworth’s to find it intrinsically transporting. And here we may note that, by its amazing capacity to give us too much of the best things, modern technology has tended to devaluate the traditional vision-inducing materials.
Yes, it can be hard for writers to appreciate their own content. I can be my own harshest critic at times, so it’s hard for me to judge how good my writing is without having some distance from it. Then, I could be surprised by what I wrote.
Taking a break from something like writing (or art) allows me to clear my head and assess what it is I’m doing. With new energy comes a new resolve.
Bruce, Elyse. “Familiarity Breeds Contempt.” Historically Speaking. 16 Feb 2011. Weblog. Retrieved 5 Jan 2018. <https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/familiarity-breeds-contempt/>.
DaBoss. “The Fox and The Lion.” Fables of Aesop. 3 July 2016. Web. Retrieved 6 Jan 2016. <https://fablesofaesop.com/the-fox-and-the-lion.html>.
Deis, Robert. “‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ – and various other things…” Quote/Counterquote. 21 Mar 2017. Web. Retrieved 5 Jan 2018. <http://www.quotecounterquote.com/2012/05/familiarity-breeds-contempt-and.html>.
“familiarity breeds contempt.” The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable; 2006. Via Encyclopedia.com. Web. Retrieved 5 Jan 2018. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/familiarity-breeds-contempt>.
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“familiarity breeds contempt.” Dictionary.com. Web. Retrieved 5 Jan 2018. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/familiarity-breeds-contempt>.
Rob (chiroho). “Say What? Familiarity Breeds Contempt / Good Fences Make Good Neighbours.” Live Journal. Apr 11 2015. Weblog. <https://fandom-grammar.livejournal.com/150148.html>.
Schwartz, Mel, L.C.S.W. “Does Familiarity Breed Contempt?” Psychology Today. 24 Oct 2010. Web. Retrieved 5 Jan 2018. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shift-mind/201010/does-familiarity-breed-contempt>.
“St. Augustine of Hippo.” Catholic Online. Web. Retrieved <http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=418>.
Various. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The Phrase Finder. Started 4 Oct 2007. Online Forums. Retrieved 5 Jan 2018. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/55/messages/959.html>.
“What Does Familiarity Breeds Contempt Mean?” Writing Explained. Web. Retrieved 5 Jan 2018. <https://writingexplained.org/idiom-dictionary/familiarity-breeds-contempt>.