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Familiarity breeds contempt

Posted by Smokey Stover on October 06, 2007

In Reply to: Familiarity breeds contempt posted by Bruce Kahl on October 05, 2007

: : What does the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" mean?

: Means that the better we know a thing or person, the more we want to howl and pluck out their eyes. Uh, not howl and pluck out their eyes, I mean find fault with them.

Well, yes. But mostly it means one of a few other things. 1) We don't recognize what a good thing (or person) we have because we see it (or he/her) every day. Our close acquaintance blinds us to the value of what we have. Like a prophet not without honor except in his own country.
2) When using tools, or engaging in other highly dangerous activities, we discount the danger because we are used to it. We fail to remain safe by remaining fearful, or at least, respectful, of the harm that can come from our familiar tools or our familiar activities. A prime example is the farmer who raises corn and shreds it before blowing it up into the top of the silo. The shredder frequently gets jammed. Routinely unjamming it every day makes the farmer careless, until he or his son gets a hand caught and shredded, not a rare occurrence.

3) If a boss or aristocrat is familiar with his underlings, they may lose the necessary degree of respect. Ditto with the mistress and her maids. Ditto with the sargeant and the men, the lieutenant and the NCOs. It's lonely at the top.

This saying has wide applications, and I am doubtless missing some of them.

The OED quotes, without comment, this use of familiarity. The phrase itself appears whole in the 16th century, but the same meaning is implied in examples from the prior two centuries.

". . . 1548 UDALL, etc. Erasm. Par. John 34a, Familiaritie bringeth contempte. 1599 MINSHEU Dial. Sp. & Eng. 65/2 Much familiaritie oftentimes breedes contempt. 1647 CLARENDON Hist. Reb. I. 15/1 Olivarez had been heard to censure very severely the duke's familiarity..towards the prince. 1667 EVELYN Publ. Employment in Misc. Wks. 535 Familiarity creates contempt. . . ."

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