May 17, 2005

Antique snowclones

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