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19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop

Aesop: we’ve all heard the name, and most of us are familiar with at least a few of his fables with the anthropomorphized animals facing extremely unrealistic yet entertaining dilemmas.

There is no concrete evidence that the ancient Greek moralist and former slave we call Aesop ever wrote down any of his stories (in fact, it was several centuries after Aesop’s purported death that the first collection of his fables appeared), nor is there even proof that he actually existed at all. But the wisdom and warnings offered up by the morals of his many popular tales have survived more than two millennia, weaseling their way into the English language as common everyday expressions. Here are a handful of Aesop’s most popular contributions that we still use today, along with a taste of the stories that spawned them:

1. “Quality, not quantity.”—From “The Lioness and the Vixen”

A mother fox and lioness were boasting to each other about their young when the fox pointed out that where she gave birth to a litter of cubs each time, the lioness had only one. “But that one is a lion,” responded the lioness. Checkmate.

2. “Honesty is the best policy.”—From the tale “Mercury and the Woodsman”

A woodsman lost his axe in a river and Mercury (the one with the wings on his shoes) appeared to retrieve it. Mercury offered the woodsman an axe made of silver and another made of gold before offering the man his own and, since the man admitted that the first two were not his, he was given all three axes as a reward. When a friend heard this story, he dropped his own axe into the same river. Smart. Mercury appeared again but this time the friend claimed the golden axe as his own, which disgusted the god so much that he returned all three tools back to the bottom of the river, leaving the man empty-handed.

3. “Pride comes before a fall.”—From “The Eagle and the Cockerels”

Two cocks were fighting for control of a roost. When it was over, the loser of the battle went and hid himself in a dark corner while the winner climbed atop the barn and began to crow where he was promptly snatched up by a hungry eagle. The emo rooster was cock of the walk thereafter despite his excessive use of eyeliner.

4. “Revenge is a Two-Edged Sword.”—From “The Farmer and the Fox”

A farmer was fed up with a fox prowling his hen house at night and so set out for revenge. He trapped the fox and tied some tinder to his tail which he then set ablaze. In a panic, the fox set off at a run and, making his way through the farmer’s corn field, burned the farmer’s entire harvest to the ground.

5. “Don’t make much ado about nothing,” or “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”—From “The Mountain in Labor”.

It would seem that even Shakespeare gave props to Aesop. In this tale, a mountain was groaning and appeared ready to burst and so attracted a great crowd, all of them anticipating some incredible tragedy. Finally, at the peak of this activity, from out of the mound surfaced a mouse, and for some reason everyone was completely disappointed despite the most likely alternative having been a volcanic eruption.

6. “It’s easy to kick a man when he’s down.”—From “The Dogs and the Fox”.

A fox came across some dogs gnawing on a lion skin and said (paraphrased) “that lion would kill you all if it wasn’t dead already.”

7. To take the “lion’s share.”—From “The Lion, the Fox, and the Ass”

A lion, a fox, and an ass went hunting together and set to divide the spoils of their efforts between them. First, the ass divided the goods into three even piles, at which point the lion attacked and devoured him, then asked the fox to divide the food. The fox, taking a lesson from the ass, gave the lion nearly all of the game and set aside a meager portion for himself, which pleased the lion, who then allowed the fox to live. Another lesson gleaned from this tale? "Happy is the man who learns from the misfortunes of others."

8. “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.”—From “The Milkmaid and Her Pail”

A farmer’s daughter was musing about the value of the milk she carried in the pail atop her head and began planning to use the profits to buy enough eggs to start a poultry farm. Eventually, her wild mind led her to ponder using the spoils of her poultry farm to buy a fancy gown for the fair. As the girl imagined how the boys would flock to her in her sparkling new duds she tossed her hair, sending the pail of milk and all of her dreams to the dirt below.

9. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”—From “The Crow and the Pitcher”

A thirsty crow happened upon a tall pitcher, inside of which was a small quantity of water that he could not reach. The crow, apparently a genius bird, gathered a crop of stones and dropped them one by one into the pitcher until the water level had was high enough for him to drink. Ahh.

10. “Look before you leap.”—From “The Fox and the Goat”

A fox found himself trapped in a well and so he coaxed a goat down with him into the water below. When the goat reached the bottom of the well the fox climbed on his back and out of his prison, leaving the goat to suffer his fate alone.

11. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”—From “The Hawk and the Nightingale”

A nightingale was caught in the talons of a hawk and pled for his life, saying that the hawk ought to let him go and pursue much larger birds that might have a better shot at slaking his hunger. “I should indeed have lost my senses,” said the hawk, “If I should let go food ready to my hand, for the sake of pursuing birds which are not yet even within sight.” And he ate him.

12. “One good turn deserves another.”—From “The Serpent and the Eagle”

A snake and an eagle were locked in a life-and-death battle when a countryman came upon them and freed the eagle from the serpent’s grasp. As retribution, the snake spat venom into the man’s drinking horn and, as he went to drink, the grateful eagle knocked the poisoned drink from his hand and onto the ground below. The man was probably just ticked about his drink, though, if you think about it. Unless he spoke eagle.

13. “Fair weather friends are not much worth.”—From “The Swallow and the Crow”

In the story, a swallow and crow were arguing over who had the superior plumage when the crow ended the discussion by pointing out that, though the swallow’s feathers were pretty, his kept him from freezing during the winter. The crow then dropped the mic and walked off the stage.

14. To have “sour grapes”.—From “The Fox and the Grapes”

A fox came across a bunch of grapes hanging from a trellis high above but, try as he might, he just couldn’t reach them. As he gave up on the fruit and began to walk away, he said to himself, “I thought those grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.” It's easy to disparage something you can't attain.

15. “Slow and steady wins the race.”—From “The Hare and the Tortoise”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one...You have? So you know the turtle wins the race despite the hare's incredible speed? Thought so. Moving on, then.

16. “Birds of a feather flock together.”—From “The Farmer and the Stork”

When a flock of cranes descended on a farmer’s newly seeded field, he cast a net with the intention of trapping and killing them all. In the process, the farmer gathered a single stork along with the cranes, who naturally pleaded for his life, citing his noble character and pointing out that his plumage was different from his cohorts. The farmer, however, was not moved and, since the stork had seen fit to take up with the scoundrel cranes, he did him in with the other birds all the same.

17. “Nip evil in the bud.”—From “The Thief and His Mother”

When a woman failed to discipline her son for stealing a book from a schoolmate, he continued to up the ante and was eventually caught and hung. As the woman cried about her son’s fate, a neighbor basically rubbed it in her face by pointing out that if she’d put a stop to his thieving ways long before he never would have been executed.

18. “A man is known by the company he keeps.”—From “The Ass and His Purchaser”

A man looking to purchase an ass took one home on a trial basis and released him in the pasture with his other donkeys. When the new addition took an instant liking to the laziest ass of the bunch, the farmer yoked him up and led him straight back to the vendor, saying that he expected the new donkey would probably just turn out as worthless as his choice of companion.

19. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”—From “The Stag and the Lion”

No surprise ending here—a stag took refuge in a cave to hide from a pack of dogs that were on his trail only to find something much worse inside: a lion. Not quite sure how anyone can take anything from this particular fable except maybe ‘Keep yourself out of strange caves if you don’t want to get eaten by a lion.’ Still, it’s pretty sound advice.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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