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Two wrongs don't make a right?

Posted by RRC on September 12, 2007

In Reply to: Two wrongs don't make a right? posted by Victoria S Dennis on September 10, 2007

: : : What is the origin of the phrase... Two wrongs don't make a right?

: :
: : The word "origins" in regard to a phrase is always a bit confusing to me. It could mean, when was it first used. It could also mean, how did it get to be used to mean what it means. There is some discussion of the phrase in the archive (back up one page, use the search box at the top of the page). I'm going to offer an opinion which is not backed up by any certain knowledge.

: : Why isn't this an obvious truism? Why would anyone think in the first place that two wrongs might cancel each other out, thus making it a "right." Just a possibility: English teachers and grammarians have been teaching for eons (well, a long time) that in correct English two negatives cancel each other out, thus leaving a positive meaning. At some point someone may have wanted to impress on someone else (like a schoolchild) that this rule did not apply to examples of negative behavior.

: : Yeah, very shaky. Perhaps it will inspire someone who knows more than I to come forward.
: : SS

: It's simply a proverb; it wasn't coined by anybody famous. The first known use is in a letter dated 1783, but it's anybody's guess how old the saying already was then. In answer to Smokey's question "why would anybody think in the first place that they do?" - well, I can't say *why*, but it's certain that every kindergarten child thinks they *do* - hence the need for the saying. I don't think that grammar and double negatives have anything to do with it. Consider the synonymous proverb "two blacks don't make a white"; it's not used much now for fear of racial offence, but it too is ancient, first having been cited in a collection of Scottish proverbs published in 1721. (At which time, I suppose it needs saying, there was no racial implication at all intended.) (VSD)

As to why, there's revenge, an eye for an eye, punishments that don't fit the crime, etc. The two wrongs don't have to be committed by the same person. If you kill my dog, shall I kill your dog to make it right?
Do the ends justify the means? If I shoplift something, should I break into the store at night to put it back?