Famous Sayings #117 — ‘It Takes One to Know One’

August 13, 2018

“You know what, Johnny? You’re an extremely selfish person.”

“Hey, it takes one to know one.”

famous sayings, it takes one to know one, projection, retort

This week, we will be looking at a famous saying that has quite of bit of related phrases. I might look at some of them individually in the future, but for now, let’s look at this one that is still in use today.


What Does ‘It Takes One to Know One’ Mean?

This phrase is pretty self-explanatory, but it can mean a few things, based on how it’s used.

For one thing, “It takes one to know one” can be used as a retort. Usually, when this retort is used, a person using it was insulted. For example, that person could be called an idiot or other stupid, yet derogatory name. They will respond by saying, “You are one also” (“Takes one”).

Sometimes, when someone says, “It takes ones to know one,” they can mean that a person who has certain qualities is more likely to see it (or perceive it) in others. It’s like this Danish phrase: “Tyv tror, at hver mand stjæler.” This means “A thief believes everybody steals” (Wiktionary).

Basically, the person who utters the phrase is calling projection, which puts the spotlight on the person making an accusation. Thus, when someone says, “It takes one to know one,” they are saying that the person accusing them of being a certain way is (also) that way (Ammer).

Other times, albeit rarely, the phrase “It takes one to know one” is used in a playful, complementary manner (“What does”). Here’s an example of a father complimenting his daughter:

Jenny is such a brilliant artist. She takes after her dad. I guess it takes one to know one.

That’s pretty nice. 😊 I like it when the phrase is used in this way, but for the most part, “It takes one to know one” is used in a derogatory manner.


Where Did This Phrase Originate?

The first clear answer I got to this question was from an old thread on The Phrase Finder’s forums. On May 8, 2002, a user named Nicole asked other users about the phrase “It takes one to know one.” Nicole wanted to know what the phrase meant, if there were other phrases like that one and if the phrase in question was derogative (she spelled it “derrogative”). Four users responded to the thread within a day.

ESC’s post was the most helpful because he cited an entry from the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (1996). According to the information posted by ESC, the phrase “It takes one to know one” is often used to deflect an accusation and it implies that only a person with certain traits can recognize those traits in others. The snippet also said that the phrase could have originated around the late 19th or early 20th century.

I also found two sources that cited an entry from the American Heritage® Dictionary. According to the entry, the phrase was always meant as a retort to an insult and could date back to the early 1900s.

Additionally, I found out that the phrase like “It takes one to know one” exists in the Gaelic Language. The Compass Rose and GaelicMatters.com websites contained the phrase Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile, which can be translated to “One beetle recognizes another.” However, there was no way to figure out when the phrase was first introduced into the Gaelic language.


What Are Some Similar Phrases to ‘It Takes One to Know One’?

Remember the most common use of the phrase. In that vein, these are similar sayings:

  • “Look who’s talking.”
  • “That’s the pot calling the kettle black.”
  • “I know you are, but what am I?”

I think that each of these phrases deserves further investigation pertaining to their origins. (And the second one would be a fun art project.)

There is also another saying that is related but takes on a new meaning: “It takes a thief to catch a thief.” I would also like to look at this saying, as well.


Works Cited

Ammer, Christine. “It takes one to know one.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms. 1995, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2003. The Christine Ammer 1992 Trust. Print. Retrieved. 13 Aug. 2018

“Famous Irish Sayings with Gaelic Translation.” GaelicMatters.com. Web. Retrieved 13 August 2018. <http://www.gaelicmatters.com/famous-irish-sayings.html>.

“Irish Proverbs in Gaelic and English / Celtic Wisdom from Ireland.” Compass Rose Cultural Crossroads.” Web. Retrieved 13 Aug 2018. <http://www.compassrose.org/folklore/irish/Irish-Proverbs-Gaelic.html>.

“It takes one to know one – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Web. Retrieved 13 Aug 2018. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/it+takes+one+to+know+one>.

“it takes one to know one (phrase) definition and synonyms.” Macmillan Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 13 Aug 2018. <https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/it-takes-one-to-know-one>.

“It takes one to know one | Define It takes one to know one at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Web. Retrieved 12 Aug 2018. <https://www.dictionary.com/browse/it-takes-one-to-know-one>.

“It takes one to know one.” Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. 2017. Retrieved 13 August 2018.

“takes one to know one.” McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. 2002. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Print. Accessed 13 Aug. 2018

“Takes one to know one – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Web. Retrieved 13 Aug 2018. <https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/takes+one+to+know+one>.

Titelman, Gregory Y. Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. Random House. New York; 1996. Print.

Various Authors. It takes one to know one.” The Phrase Finder. Topic Created 8 May 2002. Last Updated 9 May 2002. Online Forum. Retrieved 12 Aug 2018. <https://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/13/messages/1473.html>.

Various Authors. “it takes one to know one.” Wiktionary. Last Updated 1 June 2018. Web. Retrieved 13 Aug 2018. <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/it_takes_one_to_know_one>.

Various Authors. “What does ‘it takes one to know one’ mean?” Quora. Web. Retrieved 12 Aug 2018. <https://www.quora.com/What-does-it-takes-one-to-know-one-mean>.

“What does it takes one to know one mean?” Definitions.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2018. Web. Retrieved 13 Aug 2018. <https://www.definitions.net/definition/it+takes+one+to+know+one>.

“Where does the phrase ‘it takes one to know one’ come from?” Quora. Web. Retrieved 12 August 2018. <https://www.quora.com/unanswered/Where-does-the-phrase-it-takes-one-to-know-one-come-from>.