Q: What is the history of the phrase “like father, like son”? Does it hark back to a time when this sort of parallel construction was common?
A: The expression “like father, like son” is an old English proverb with roots in classical Latin. Like many other English proverbs, it doesn’t conform to the usual syntax, the arrangement of words and phrases into sentences.
In “Proverbs,” an essay in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences, the philologist Neal R. Norrick explains that proverbs like the one you’re asking about don’t adhere to the traditional use of noun phrases and verb phrases.
“Many proverbs such as Like father, like son and The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat adhere to formulas, here like X, like Y and The X-er, the Y-er, which do not conform to customary NP + VP syntactic structure,” Norrick writes. “So special interpretative rules beyond regular compositional semantic principles are necessary to assign these proverbs even literal readings.”
Such literal readings, he says, “provide the basis on which figurative interpretations are determined.”
“One interpretative rule will relate the formula like X, like Y to the reading ‘Y is like X’ to derive for Like father, like son the interpretation ‘the son is like the father’; another rule related the formula The X-er, the Y-er to ‘Y is proportional to X’ to interpret The nearer the bone, the sweeter the meat as ‘the sweetness of the meat is proportional to the nearness of the bone’; and so on for other recurrent formulas.”
Norrick, who holds the chair of English philology at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, says other proverbs, like “once bitten, twice shy” and “sow the wind, reap the storm,” are “radically elliptical, rather than formulaic, as such.”
“They require expansion before they can receive grammatical analyses interpretable by regular compositional principles,” he adds. “This suggests a cognitive procedure in which a person constructs a complete paraphrase of the elliptical proverb, then assigns the interpretation derived from the paraphrase.”
Norrick’s analysis can be heavy going for lay readers, so we’ll simply say that proverbs are often idiomatic expressions that don’t necessarily conform to the traditional rules of English.
The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines the proverb “like father, like son” this way: “Fathers and sons resemble each other, and sons tend to do what their fathers did before them.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, which defines the adage as “In the same manner from generation to generation,” says, “This ancient proverb has been stated in English in slightly varying versions since the 1300s.”
American Heritage cites this 17th-century variation: “Like father, like son; like mother, like daughter,” from Bibliotheca Scholastica Instructissima (1616), a book of proverbs collected by the English theologian Thomas Draxe.
Two anonymous Latin sayings, Qualis pater, talis filius (“as the father, so the son”) and patris est filius (“he is his father’s son”), are cited as the source for the English proverb “like father, like son.”
However, a mother-daughter version appears in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament (Ezekiel 16:44): “As the mother, so her daughter.”