Arnold Zwicky asked for the earliest example of "once a/an *, always a/an *". The oldest one I can find is in a curious passage of Ralph Waldo Emerson's racist essay entitled Race (1856):
When it is considered what humanity, what resources of mental and moral power, the traits of the blond race betoken,—its accession to empire marks a new and finer epoch, wherein the old mineral force shall be subjugated at last by humanity, and shall plough in its furrow henceforward. It is not a final race, once a crab always a crab, but a race with a future. [emphasis added].
Can anyone take it further back?[Update: well, as usual, it was a mistake not to check the OED. Benjamin Zimmer did, and sent in the results:
16. Proverb. _once a --, always a --_ and variants, indicating that a particular role cannot be or is unlikely to be relinquished.
1566 W. P. tr. C. S. Curio Pasquine in Traunce f. 107v, The olde rule: he that is once a false knaue, it is maruell if euer he be honest man after.
1613 H. PARROT Laquei Ridiculosi II. cxxi sig. N2v, Well you may change your name, But once a Whoore, you should be still the same.
1622 J. MABBE tr. M. Aleman Guzman d'Alf. I. I. II. i. 7 Once a knaue, and euer a knaue:..For he that hath once beene naught, is presumed to bee so still.
1696 Cornish Comedy IV. i. 30 'I'll do so no more.' 'Not till next time; once a Villain, and always so.'
1705 P. A. MOTTEUX Amorous Miser III. 58 Once a Captain and always a Captain.
1760 W. KENRICK Falstaff's Wedding IV. i. 52 As to the matter of knighthood; once a knight and always a knight, you know.
[And here's some bilingual commentary by Robert Dixon, from Canidia (1683), The Third Part, Canto XVI:
722 Inheritances must not ascend, I pray,
723 Then hang poor Parents out of the way.
724 To what Absurdities will you hale us?
725 Semel malus semper præsumitur esse malus.
726 There is a saying that we have,
727 Once a Knave, and ever a Knave.
728 It is a Saying of the Devil,
729 Once Evil, and ever Evil.
730 It is a Saying of Robin-Hood,
731 Once good, and ever good.
732 When will Follies have an End,
733 If that which is bad can never mend?
734 'Tis a Saying of as good Delivery,
735 Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit vivere.
736 Vox Populi, vox Dei; How so?
737 Then they may let all Truth go.
Bouvier's 1856 Law Dictionary quotes:
Qui semel malus, semper prasumitur esse malus in eodem genere. He who is once bad, is presumed to be always so in the same degree. Cro. Car. 317.
]Posted by Mark Liberman at May 17, 2005 05:18 PM