Date: Sat, 9 Sep 1995 23:23:06 -0700


Subject: Re: contempt vs. content

On Sat, 9 Sep 1995, Larry Horn wrote:

Now wait just a minute, here. Shakespeare, OK. But . . . .

the fact that Publius Syrius, Aesop or Cervantes might have written

something in Latin, Greek, or Spanish that translates as "Familiarity breeds

contempt" doesn't strike me as compelling evidence . . . .

when people mention familiarity breeding something, it's usually contempt

. . . . but I'm still not sure whether the

occurrence of 'content' in this frame is an instance of a "pullet

surprise" or simply a variant. It doesn't appear to be a geographical

variant, in any case; nor is it (necessarily) a joke.

actually, his name was publius syrus. my typing is far from perfect.

i'm not trying to offer compelling evidence of anything. but because

i've lived in the west most of my life and never heard it, i doubt the first

tentative hypothesis offered, that "content" may be the western variant.

publius syrus is also the guy who gave us a version of "strike while the

iron is hot" (maxim 262), which _bartlett's_ enters under john heywood

(who edited the first collection of english colloquial sayings), with

footnotes for rabelais and syrus. probably most americans encounter

"strike while the iron is hot" as the slogan on the cream of wheat box.

that doesn't mean that it didn't enter the language, and stay there for

awhile, in a popular/preferred translation. my mother's family (the older

generations anyway) pepper their speech with _bartlett's_y commonplaces.

none of them ever read cervantes, but their biblical aphorisms are always

in king james, their shakespeare (even though they seldom realize that's

what it is) is frozen in word order, and their classical allusions run to

what i imagine were british-schoolboy norms before 1920.

if i did want to offer my own hypothesis about this phenomenon (which i

emphatically don't--i'm going right back to lurking in three shakes of a

lamb's tail), i would guess this will not turn out to be a regional

variant, and that you won't find a body of written attestations for it

that turn out to be very old. further, i would guess that most americans

now add to the stock of proverbs they know at least as much from

television and radio as from dusty old books and things grandma used to

say. that means that if ricki lake decides to say "kneehigh to a

walkman," or "since hector was a puppy," it has, at least potentially, a

huge effect. i wonder if the real isogloss for content/contempt is not a

geographical but a temporal marking; that the usage will turn out to

begin after a paul harvey broadcast from 1962.

final attempts to ward off the blows i feel coming: i love this list

because of the possibilities it opens up. i don't want to defend a

position on this topic, and i look forward to further evidence which

points in other directions. i am a bookworm from a family of bookworms;

when i see a post about a mid-nineteenth century usage of pothouse

politician, i know from something i read somewhere that a pothouse is a

place where you get a pot of something restorative like soup or ale, that

it reminds me of dickens and penguin translations of stendhal, but i

can't put my finger on it. it makes me sad that we have to go to the _oed_

or _webster's third_ to remember what this meant; the suggestion that

since it means something like "a place where people smoke pot" in one

poster's speech community makes that meaning more likely in 1850 makes me

sadder still. and it makes me nervous that it makes me sad--how can i be

such a descriptivist about form and such a prescriptivist about content!

sylvia swift