Cut your coat according to your cloth
The literary pedants brought to my attention that I had mangled this proverb when I had used it a few weeks back. I thought it was time to set the record straight by investigating the origin of the proverb which is even more apposite as I am now retired. It is fairly literal in its meaning – you should plan your actions in accordance with the circumstances or the resources you have available.
The meaning is obvious and the proverb has a long pedigree, as you might expect as it is a truism which is as relevant in days gone by as it is now. The first recorded use of it in the printed English language dates back to 1546 in J Heywood’s Dialogue of Proverbs where he writes, “I shall cut my cote after my cloth” and in 1580 Lyly in his Euphues and his England of 1580 adds a gloss to ensure that the meaning is crystal clear, “Be neither prodigall to spende all, nor couetous to keepe all, cut thy coat according to thy cloth”.
In 1778 George Washington who could never tell a lie suggested that the proverb was an everyday idiom which, perhaps, shouldn’t be used in more elevated society, “General McIntoch…must..yield to necessity; that is, to use a vulgar phrase, shape his Coat according to his Cloth”. A mildly amusing retort to the phrase appeared in Penny Wentworth’s novel of 1949, Miss Silver Comes To Stay; “You must cut your coat according to your cloth ..My trouble is I do like the most expensive cloth”.
Variants of the proverb are to be found in the corpus of Latin literature. The early Roman comedian, Plautus, wrote “sumptus censum ne superset” which translates as let not your expenditure exceed your income and the poet Horace used an interesting variant, “ex quovis ligno non fit Mercurio”. This translates as the god Mercury cannot be made out of any old piece of wood, meaning that not everyone can be a scholar and that you have to be content with your lot. Variants around the idea can also be found in French and Italian and the English “stretch your arm no farther than your sleeve will reach” which may be prudent sartorial advice plays on the same concept.
Of course, in explain the origins of this proverb I may be accused of trying to teach my Grandmother to suck eggs. One way to remove the innards of an uncooked egg whilst leaving the shell intact is to make a couple of small holes at the ends of the egg and suck the contents out. So that’s egg sucking. Anyone accused of teaching their Grandmother to suck eggs is offering advice to someone who has more experience than themselves.
The phrase entered the printed English language when J Stevens translated the works of the Spanish author, Francisco de Quevedo, in 1707, “You would have me teach my Grandame to suck Eggs”. The tendency of the young to tell their elders things they already know was lampooned in a cartoon published in Punch in 1890, “You see, Grandmama, before you extract the contents of this bird’s egg by suction, you must make an incision at one extremity, and a corresponding orifice at the other.” Grandmama’s response is to the effect, “Dearie me! And we used to just make a hole at each end.” Not the funniest punchline they ever printed but it illustrates the sense perfectly.
But perhaps the last word should be reserved for Mark Twain to whom this quotation has been attributed but not conclusively so, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years”. Quite.