once bitten, twice shy

The phrase “once bitten, twice shy” means to be very cautious because you’ve had an unpleasant experience that you don’t want to repeat. If a dog bites you, you tend to avoid that dog forever after.

Like many such pieces of wisdom, the phrase has been attributed to Aesop. In 1400, William Caxton, the first English printer, did so in his translation of Aesop’s fables. If Aesop did, in fact, use the phrase, it was connected to the story about a dog and a wolf. The dog talks the wolf out of eating him by suggesting he’d taste better if he were fatter. When the wolf later demands the dog submit to being eaten, the dog refuses.

The moral to this story was rendered as (in modern English): “He that has been once beguiled by someone ought to stay well away from that person.”

The English novelist Robert Surtees referred to the saying in Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour. Later, it appears in Folk Phrases of Four Counties by GG Northall. 

Wise Words and Wives’ Tales by Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner (1993), states that the phrase has been a familiar saying in the twentieth century, and was used in The Rescue (1920) by the English novelist Joseph Conrad, and also in The Apes of God (1930) by novelist Wyndham Lewis.

According to the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (1996), “Once burned, twice shy,” was first attested in the United States in Dead Sure by S. Sterling.

I’m most familiar with “once burned, twice shy,” and it always reminds me of accidentally burning myself on the cookstove. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like cooking and avoid the kitchen whenever possible.


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