Birds of a feather flock together

Cross-posted from: Glossologics
Originally published: 23.11.13

Have you ever looked up at the sky and seen a flock of birds flying overhead? It can be a magnificent sight, the more so when there is a very large number of birds. It takes no great powers of deduction to work out how this expression might have come about – simple observation tells us that birds of the same species – of the same feather, as it were – can be frequently seen together.

So, where does it come from? This is an intriguing question. It appears in a translation of Plato’s Republic by Benjamin Jowett, published in 1856. Plato’s work dates to around 380 BC, which would indeed make it an ancient proverb. In Book I of The Republic, in Jowett’s translation, I found:

“I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says”

However, I then went to the Greek text. It reads:

Εγώ σοι έφη, νη την Δία, εγώ ω Σώκρατες, γε μοι φαίνεται, πολλάκις γαρ συνερχόμεθα τίνες εις ταύτο, παραπλησίαν ηλικίαν έχοντες διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν

I see no reference here to either birds or feathers. It does indeed state that it is in keeping with the old proverb – διασώζοντες την παλαιάν παροιμίαν – but it does not actually state what that proverb is.Scholars generally maintain that the “old proverb” in question is: Ηλιξ ήλικα τέρπει γέρων δε τέρπει γέροντα (Skouteropoulos, commentary on Plato, Polis Publications, σχόλια του Ν. Μ. Σκουτερόπουλου στην Πολιτεία του Πλάτωνα εκδ. Πόλις). This simply means that people have need of the company of others of their own age – no mention of birds or flocks. It seems to me that Jowett simply chose a well-known English proverb for his translation, to make it clear to the reader.

This means we have to look for another source for our proverb.

There is a slightly different turn of phrase, but still essentially the same expression, in The Rescuing of Romish Fox by William Turner, which dates to 1545. At that time, it was:

Byrdes of on kynde and color flok and flye allwayes together.”

It seems likely that the expression was in use before that time, even if this is the earliest it appears in writing.

Now let’s take a look at how this is expressed in other languages. In French one might say qui se ressemble s’assemble, or literally “whoever resembles, assembles together.” Italian also has chi si assomiglia si piglia; “what is similar takes to each other”. The German expression is along similar lines: Gleich und Gleich gesellt sich gernwhich means “similar and similar like to join together.” There is another German expression which is a bit more colourful: aus dem gleichen Holz geschnitzt, which translates as “carved from the same wood”.

This brings me now to Slovenian. There are two expressions of note. The first is very much like the German mentioned above: Podobno se s podobnim druži, meaning “similar keeps company with similar.” But it is intriguing to note that this language, geographically far from English, in a separate language family, also has this expression: Enake sorte ptiči skup letijo. This literally means “the same birds fly together”.

Another idiom in French is de même farine, or “from the same flour”. Similarly, in Portuguese, they say farinha do mesmo saco, meaning “flour from the same bag”, meaning that something looks and behaves similar and can be found in the same place, much as we might use the English expression.

In Spanish there are several expressions. We will start with pájaros del mismo plumaje vuelan juntos, which means the same as the English expression. Then there is also Dios los cría y ellos se juntan, meaning “God calls them and they gather together”.

In Polish we find a simple but succinct expression: Ciągnie swój do swego, which translates assimilar people are pulled to each other”. Japanese, too, would say “like draws to like”; Rui wa tomo wo yobu (類は友を呼ぶ).

Welsh also uses a similar phrasing to the English: adar o’r unlliw a hedan i’r unlle – “birds of the same colour fly to the same place”.

Geographically further away, but with the same concept, in Finnish we find: Samanlaiset linnut aina yhdessä lentävät, meaning literally “similar birds always fly together”.

Moving on now to Swedish, there are two lovely expressions to express this idea: Lika barn leka bäst, which means “similar children play best together”, a nice peaceful image, or, my personal preference: Kaka söker maka, an expression that literally translates as “cake looks for partner”.

Having looked at ancient Greek in the first part of the post, here is the modern expression: γυρίζει ο τέντζερης και βρίσκει και το καπάκι του [yirizei o tentzeris kai vriskei kai to kapaki tou] – “the pot turns round and finds its lid”. With more or less the same imagery is the Turkishidiom: tencere yuvarlanmış kapağını bulmuş – “the saucepan rolled away and found its lid”. Bulgarian, a neighbouring language to both of the previous two, has търкулнало се гърнето, та си намерило похлупак [tarkulnalo se garneto ta si namerilo pohlupak]. This means exactly the same as the Greek expression – “the pot turns and finds its lid”.

But Bulgarian does not stop there. We can also find които си приличат, се привличат [koito si prilichat se privlichat], meaning “those who look alike attract each other”. And, my personal favourite, краставите магарета през девет баира се подушват [krastavite magareta prez devet baira se podushvat] , which translates as “Mangy donkeys smell themselves from nine mountains afar”.

This next expression was a close contender to be my favourite: Ta enney ec muc er muc elley. It is from Manx, and translates as “a pig knows another pig”

Finally, I rather like the expression in Russianрыбак рыбака видит издалека [rybák rybaká vídit izdaleká], which means “a fisherman sees a fisherman from afar”.


Glossologics a blog on language, with special emphasis on etymology, and including references to languages other than English.