Friday, June 10, 2016


Don't Teach Your Grandmother to Suck Eggs

Jennifer Speake, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, 6th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 312, discussing "Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs," lists the first occurrence as an English translation by John Stevens of Quevedo's Comical Works (London: John Morphew, 1707), p. 403: "You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs, or set up for a Lent Preacher." The English name of the work in question (attributed to, but not actually by Quevedo) is The Dog and the Fever, and the Spanish name is El perro y la calentura. The Spanish being translated is "V. quiere que yo venda miel al colmenero, y que le predique á la cuaresma?"

The proverb also occurs in Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book XII, chapter XIII (1749):
I remember my old schoolmaster, who was a prodigious great scholar, used often to say, Polly matete cry town is my daskalon. The English of which, he told us, was, That a child may sometimes teach his grandmother to suck eggs.
"Polly matete cry town is my daskalon" is a humorous transcription of πολλοὶ μαθηταὶ κρείττονες διδασκάλων, i.e., Many pupils are cleverer than their teachers, which occurs in Menander, Monostichs 651 Jaekel; Cicero, Letters to Friends 9.7.2; and Greek Anthology 11.176.5 (by Lucilius).

But the real Greek equivalent of "Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs" seems to be ἡ ὗς τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν, as in Plutarch, Life of Demosthenes 11.5 (tr. Bernadotte Perrin):
Now, it is needless to remark that his written speeches have much in them that is harsh and bitter; but in his extempore rejoinders he was also humorous. For instance, when Demades said "Demosthenes teach me! As well might the sow teach Athena." "It was this Athena," said Demosthenes, "that was lately found playing the harlot in Collytus."

οἱ μὲν οὖν γεγραμμένοι τῶν λόγων ὅτι τὸ αὐστηρὸν πολὺ καὶ πικρὸν ἔχουσι, τί ἂν λέγοι τις; ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἀπαντήσεσι ταῖς παρὰ τὸν 5καιρὸν ἐχρῆτο καὶ τῷ γελοίῳ. Δημάδου μὲν γὰρ εἰπόντος "Ἐμὲ Δημοσθένης, ἡ ὗς τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν," "Αὕτη," εἶπεν, "ἡ Ἀθηνᾶ πρώην ἐν Κολλυτῷ μοιχεύουσα ἐλήφθη."
and Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft 7 = Moralia 803 d (tr. Harold North Fowler):
But for one who employs it [ridicule] in self-defence the occasion makes it pardonable and at the same time pleasing, as when Demosthenes, in reply to a man who was suspected of being a thief and who mocked him for writing at night, said, "I am aware that I offend you by keeping a light burning," and to Demades who shouted, "Demosthenes would correct me—'the sow correcting Athena,'" he replied, "Yes, your Athena was caught in adultery last year!"

ἀμυνομένῳ δὲ συγγνώμην ἅμα καὶ χάριν ὁ καιρὸς δίδωσι, καθάπερ Δημοσθένει πρὸς τὸν αἰτίαν ἔχοντα Dκλέπτειν χλευάζοντα δ᾿ αὐτοῦ τὰς νυκτογραφίας, "οἶδ᾿ ὅτι σε λυπῶ λύχνον καίων"· καὶ πρὸς Δημάδην βοῶντα Δημοσθένης ἐμὲ βούλεται διορθοῦν "ἡ ὗς τὴν Ἀθηνᾶν," "αὕτη μέντοι πέρυσιν ἡ Ἀθηνᾶ μοιχεύουσα ἐλήφθη."
Cf. Theocritus 5.21-23 (tr. A.S.F. Gow):
But come, if you care to stake a kid—it is no great matter—
why, I'll sing a match with you until you've had enough.
The pig once challenged Athena.

ἀλλ' ὦν αἴ κα λῇς ἔριφον θέμεν, ἔστι μὲν οὐδέν
ἱερόν, ἀλλά γέ τοι διαείσομαι ἔστε κ' ἀπείπῃς.
ὗς ποτ' Ἀθαναίαν ἔριν ἤρισεν.
Rare in Greek, the proverb is commoner in Latin as sus Minervam (sc. docet). This is I i 40 in the Adagia of Erasmus. See also A. Otto, Die Sprichwörter und sprichwörtlichen Redensarten der Römer (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1890), p. 224 (#1118).

Thanks to Eric Thomson for help. He says, "Another adage that might be relevant here is ‘Delphinum natare doces, vel Aquilam volare'."

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