May 18, 2005

The hounds of ADS-L

While Mark Liberman was tracing the snowclone "once a X, always a X" back to a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay of 1856 ("once a crab always a crab"), the textual hounds of the American Dialect Society were baying on the trail, back through the 19th century and before.  If Latin counts, way way before.

(Mark maintained that I had asked for the earliest example.  Actually, I merely reported Larry Horn's asking for the earliest example.  Not that I'm not interested.  But I'm just a reporter here.)

As a reminder: this all started with Barry Popik, who was tracking the baseball slogan "Once a Dodger, always a Dodger" and had gotten back to 1934.  Then Larry Horn generalized the question, noting huge numbers of Google hits for various values of X in the formula.

Almost immediately, Ben Zimmer was onto the Making of America database, and had extracted an 1842 "Once a subject always a subject" and an 1844 "once a clergyman, always a clergyman"; for details (on this and other ADS-L postings), see the ADS-L archives.  Zimmer added some slightly later Dickensiana: "Once a captain, always a captain" (Bleak House) and "Once a gentleman, and always a gentleman" (Little Dorrit).

Bill Mullins chimed in with examples from newpapers: X = subject (1853), state (1866), judge  (1867), soldier (1878), sailor (1887), miner (1892), sailor (1909), cowboy (1909), Marine (1928).  Barry Popik added fireman (1884).  [I just now noticed the heavily masculine bent of these quotations.  Where is X = nurse, queen, mother, cook, maid, princess?]

Then Ben Zimmer pushed things further back, with X = captain from 1786 and 1792.

At this point Ben did what we ALL should have done at the beginning, just in case: check the OED.  Which -- surprising to me -- does indeed have a subentry for once a --, always a -- and its variants ("indicating that a particular role cannot be or is unlikely to be relinquished"), with cites in the spirit (though not quite the form) of the familiar formula, from 1566 and 1613.  But by 1622 we get "Once a knaue, and euer a knaue", and then X = captain in 1705 and knight in 1760 (with and joining the two parts of the formula).

There's no question that the formula was well established in the 19th century.  Nada O'Neal in e-mail to me supplies an 1846 example of "once a general, always a general" and an 1851 "once a Major always a Major, and once a Governor always a Governor".  By then the formula seems to have been fixed without an internal and or ever, which is to say, really fixed.  As icing, O'Neal adds a fool cite from Frazer's Golden Bough and a clergyman cite from the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist".

But it gets better, thanks to Roger Depledge (in e-mail to me).  First, Depledge tells me that the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (5th ed.) backs up the OED -- big surprise -- in saying that "the formula is found from the early seventeenth century".  Then he goes on to quote an Italian legal site with the Latin proverb "Hodie et olim possessor, semper possessor" ('Today and once the owner, always the owner').  More impressively, there's Gaius the jurist (fl. 130-180), who's credited with the saying "Semel heres semper heres" ('Once an heir, always an heir').  This is really cool, given the "semel... semper" phonological parallelism, which (as Depledge said to me) suggests that the formula is probably older and probably oral.

Well, in Latin.  There's a hell of a long time between the 2nd century and the 17th.  The early OED cites (1566 and 1613) have the right sense, but are not yet fixed in form.  So, either the English formula developed on its own, or there was a 17th century source using Latin models with "semel... semper" (note: without an "et" 'and').  Or, of course, both.

Remember, I'm not a historical linguist, or a historian of language and culture.  I do syntax and morphology and variation.  The rest of this stuff, I'm just passing it on.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at May 18, 2005 12:40 AM