Ralph Waldo Emerson? Sam Elliott? Ethan Coen? Joel Coen? Bertrand W. Sinclair? Carl O. Sauer? Roger Penske? Jim Croce? Preacher Roe? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of ursine sayings about the topsy-turvy vicissitudes of life:
1) Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.
2) Sometimes you hunt the bear, and sometimes the bear hunts you.
3) Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you.
A version of the first statement was spoken during the 1998 movie “The Big Lebowski” whose screenplay was written by the Coen brothers. Would you please examine the provenance of this family?
Dear Quote Investigator: An interesting precursor was included in an essay titled “Farming” published in an 1870 collection by the influential transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. The early human diet included foods derived from plants and animals, but hunting megafauna was a dangerous endeavor. Emerson described a beleaguered primal figure. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
He is a poor creature; he scratches with a sharp stick, lives in a cave or a hutch, has no road but the trail of the moose or bear; he lives on their flesh when he can kill one, on roots and fruits when he cannot. He falls, and is lame; he coughs, he has a stitch in his side, he has a fever and chills: when he is hungry, he cannot always kill and eat a bear;—chances of war,—sometimes the bear eats him.
Emerson’s essays were reprinted in many editions during the ensuing decades, and QI believes the passage above probably facilitated the emergence of the modern adage.
Another precursor appeared in an item printed in an Alexandria, Louisiana newspaper in 1894. The two-fold contingent nature of encounters with bears was highlighted: 2
The farmers of this community are about done gathering their crops, and many of them are now in the woods gathering up their hogs. Some of them so engaged a few days ago ran across a bear in Calcasieu swamp so the first question asked now when they return from the swamp is, “Did you get the bear, or did the bear get you?”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1904 a version of the saying with the verb “to hunt” appeared in a tale by the author Bertrand W. Sinclair that was published in multiple newspapers including one in McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania: 3
“Bear huntin’ don’t always turn out just the way you’ve got it figured,” volunteered Jack Gordon from his perch on the top rail of the horse corral. “Sometimes you hunt the bear, and sometimes the bear hunts you—and once in a while extraneous circumstances as the Professor calls ’em, hops in and mixes things up in good shape.”
In 1912 “The Arizona Republican” of Phoenix, Arizona printed under the title “Agriculture’s Evolutions” an excerpt from Emerson’s “Farming” essay that included the remark about bears: 4
…when he is hungry, he cannot always kill and eat a bear—chances of war—sometimes the bear eats him.
In 1939 a textbook titled “Man in Nature: America Before the Days of the White Men” by the prominent Berkeley Professor of Geography Carl O. Sauer included an instance using the verb “to get”: 5
Usually the bear tries to get away from the man. The Eskimo like the warm fur and the meat and fat of the bear, and so usually, the man gets the bear. But sometimes the bear gets the man. A polar bear weighs as much as a half dozen Eskimo and he is as strong as a half dozen men.
“Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.” This is an old saying of hunters…
In 1963 the successful automobile racer Roger Penske was profiled in the pages of “Sports Illustrated”. At that time he was a sales engineer for the aluminum company Alcoa, and he later became a celebrated racing team owner: 8
“You got to capitalize on this thing while you can. One day you eat the bear, one day the bear eats you. I’ll get out of racing when it becomes too great a liability to the company, when I’m worth something. Down deep I’m trying to exploit this thing as much as I can. Why shouldn’t I?
In 1964 the adage appeared in a Long Beach, California newspaper; once again the saying was used in the auto racing domain: 9
“In drag racing, there is saying ‘sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you,’ which otherwise means you win a few close ones and you lose a few close ones”
In 1966 a beauty pageant winner from Wisconsin received congratulatory messages together with a note providing a larger perspective: 10
One of the telegrams was from her brother Terry, a student at Notre Dame University, warning: “Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.”
In 1972 the popular singer-songwriter Jim Croce was profiled in the “Los Angeles Times”, and the newspaper shared a line from one of his songs: 11
Croce’s songs are not complicated and the lyrics do not form a one-to-one relationship with the people he has met during his travels. Each song, however, is a fine mood piece. A good example is one entitled “Hard Time Losin’ Man” which has a quick, rocky melody coupled with the words, “And sometimes they say you eat the bear/But sometimes the bear eats you.”
In 1985 the saying was assigned to Elwin Charles Roe, a.k.a., Preacher Roe who was a professional baseball pitcher active from the 1930s through the 1950s: 12
Former major leaguer Preacher Roe said it best: “Some days you eat the bear; some days the bear eats you. Yesterday, the bear ate us.”
In 1998 the movie “The Big Lebowski” written and directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen was released. A sage character played by Sam Elliott and referred to as The Stranger employed the saying. He had a strong accent; hence, the word “bear” was pronounced as “bar”. A drink was served to The Stranger while he was pronouncing the modern proverb, thus the phrase “much obliged” was interjected in the monologue: 13
Well, a wiser fellow than myself once said, “Sometimes you eat the b’ar — much obliged — sometimes the b’ar, why, he eats you.”
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of research on this family of sayings. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an interesting precursor with “eat” that appeared within a book by 1870. The sayings evolved over multiple decades, and the transition to proverbial form has been difficult to pinpoint. An instance with “hunt” was printed in 1904. An instance with “get” appeared by 1939, and it was labeled an old saying by 1960. An adage with “eat” appeared by 1963.
Image Notes: Pictures of polar bears and brown bears from skeeze at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Sandra Ikuta whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to the 2004 ADS mailing list discussants including: Barry Popik, Wilson Gray, Susan Yerkes, Rima McKinzey, and Laurence Horn. Thanks to the 2010 mailing list discussants including: Arnold Zwicky, Laurence Horn, Mark Mandel, and Charles Doyle. In addition, thanks to Doyle et al for the entry in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, and thanks to Doyle for verifying the 1939 citation. Also, gratitude to Barry Popik for his further valuable research.)
- 1870, Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay: Farming, Start Page 115, Quote Page 128, Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, London, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1894 December 15, The Weekly Town Talk, Shady Grove Items, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Alexandria, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1904 December 7, The Fulton County News, A Mix-Up With Cupid: How the God of Love Worked in Disguise by Bertrand W. Sinclair, Quote Page 6, Column 1, McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1912 July 28, The Arizona Republican (Arizona Republic), Agriculture’s Evolutions, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Phoenix, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1939 Copyright, A First Book in Geography: Man in Nature: America Before the Days of the White Men by Carl Sauer, Quote Page 80, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified visually on paper by Charles C. Doyle; thanks to the University of Georgia library system) ↩
- 1960 October 7, The Daily Reporter, Double Trouble, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Dover, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1960 October 7, The Daily Times, Twice In 1 Day Is Too Much, Says Dover Man, Quote Page 1, Column 2, New Philadelphia, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1963 March 25, Sports Illustrated, What Makes Roger Race by Gilbert Rogin, Time Inc. (Sports Illustrated Vault) link ↩
- 1964 January 30, Independent, Town Crier by Doug Ives, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Long Beach, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1966 March 28, Evening Journal (The News Journal), Donna Didn’t Win, But She Had Fun, Quote Page 27, Column 3, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1972 October 15, Los Angeles Times, Jim Croce—A Laborer in Lotus Land by Chuck Thegze, Quote Page C14, Column 4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1985 January 26, Albuquerque Journal, Ags Try To Snap Back Today Against Irvine by Steve Rivera, Quote Page 1C, Column 5, Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: Sometimes the bar eats you, Uploaded on Jan 4, 2011, Uploaded by: berig1, Description: This video clip is from the 1998 movie “The Big Lebowski”, Speaker: The Stranger character played by Sam Elliott, Screenplay: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. (Accessed on youtube.com on Nov 7, 2016) link ↩