expressions - Origin and meaning of "You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar"

23
2014-04
  • jadarnel27

    I'm having trouble understanding the rationale behind the meaning of an American English phrase of which I just became aware. That phrase is:

    You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar

    From what I understand now, this phrase would indicate that You make more friends by being nice than by being rude. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

    My confusion comes from the fact that no one catches flies in order to do anything nice to them (Well, I suppose some people do. But it's not common!). When I first read it, I actually thought the phrase meant You'll have more success luring people into a trap by being nice than by being rude. This didn't make much sense in context, though, which led me to ask around about the phrase.

    Where does this phrase come from? More importantly, why does it have such a counter-intuitive meaning?

  • Answers
  • simchona

    You catch more flies with honey than vinegar or, sometimes you catch more flies with honey is an English proverb. It doesn't have a counter-intuitive meaning--if you are trying to catch flies, you are literally going to attract more with honey. That is, you're going to get what you want (in the proverb flies, but in life any goal) with sweetness rather than acidity.

    This answer explains it similarly:

    Flies represents anything you want to achieve. Honey (sweet) represents anything pleasant that you do to get what you want. Vinegar (sour) represents anything unpleasant that you do to get what you want. It tells you to use nice methods rather than unkind methods in dealing with other people.

    This is a saying that means: you will be more successful in life being sweeter, or nice rather than being, mean to people, not nice and doing hurtful, dishonest things in life.

    This forum makes some guesses at its origins, noting:

    The proverb has been traced back to G. Torriano's 'Common Place of Italian Proverbs' . It first appeared in the United States in Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanac' in 1744, and is found in varying forms..." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

  • Thursagen

    It comes from catching flies. I think your main problem with this is, why would you catch flies? The reason could possibly be put down to catching flies to get rid of them. However, the underlying meaning of this idiom is that , you would experience more success if you were to be nice, rather than be un-nice. The analogy drawn here, is "honey" (sweet-tempered), and vinegar (sour-tempered).

    The Phrase Finder states its origin:

    .The proverb has been traced back to G. Torriano's 'Common Place of Italian Proverbs' . It first appeared in the United States in Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanac' in 1744, and is found in varying forms..." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

  • Trish

    Yes I agree that the fly refers to a negative situation or person. A fly is no-one's friend. Flies are not welcome, desired or embraced. A fly is a pest. I agree that the deeper meaning of this proverb refers to dealing with the unpleasant. And further that to disarm an unpleasant person or situation, one is wiser to use humour, sweet love and kindness, understanding and compassion rather than bitterness, anger, aggression and the like.

  • Brandon

    I think the appropriateness of using flies in this saying is very relevant if taking into context when someone wants to use vinegar (bitterness/meanness). Usually a bitter response is used when someone is being annoying or a pest (just like flies) when trying to reach your goal. That makes the saying mean to not only be kind, but to be kind in the face of an annoyance in hopes that the annoyance will go away (catching flies).

  • tchrist

    Yes, I would agree: flies don’t represent something desirable here. It’s more to simply illustrate the point of how one goes about achieving a particular goal.

    If you’ve ever lived on a farm, you know that catching flies is necessary, as they are bothersome to animals and people alike, which is why traps are installed for this purpose. But I don’t think honey is used anymore.


  • Related Question

    etymology - Origin and meaning of "The eagle flies at midnight"
  • Anderson Silva

    The eagle flies at midnight.

    What's the origin and meaning of this idiom?


  • Related Answers
  • thesunneversets

    I've never heard it before, certainly not as some kind of common phrase - but it sounds to me like the sort of line you'd hear in a cheesy wartime spy movie. Some sort of code phrase to inform your accomplices of your plans.

  • Marthaª

    It's one of the stereotypical spy code phrases used in bad and/or spoof movies. I've seen it credited to Top Secret, but not having seen that movie, I can't vouch for the assertion.

    I've also seen it as "the rooster crows at midnight", or "the eagle flies at noon". Alas, my Google-fu is not up to finding a definitive source.

  • David Luebbert

    The blues song "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)" has the line "the eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play".

    Friday was payday for laborers all across the U.S. in 1947 when this song was written. The 50 cent and quarter coins that laborers found in their pay envelopes showed eagle images on their back sides during this era. 1947 was actually the last year that the eagle showed up on the half dollar coin.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walking_Liberty_Half_Dollar and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_Liberty_Quarter

    When workers paid for their fun during Friday night parties the evening of payday, you could say that "the eagle was flying" whenever they threw coins to a bartender to pay for a drink.

    I wonder if this "eagle flies at midnight" phrase is an adaptation of this expression. If that's the source, this phrase would mean that a lot of money was changing hands at midnight.

  • Brian Hooper

    There's this 'answer' to be found ... http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20070822173707AAiQHG9

    but my personal suspicion is that it belongs in the same category as 'my postilion has been struck by lightning' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_postillion_has_been_struck_by_lightning )