Tell Me What Company You Keep, and I Will Tell You What You Are

Miguel de Cervantes? Don Quixote? Sancho Panza? Euripides? Lord Chesterfield? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Joseph Hordern? Anonymous?

Don Quixote and Sancho PanzaDear Quote Investigator: If you are attempting to assess the character of an individual you can do it indirectly by identifying his or her friends and assessing their proclivities. Here are three versions of a pertinent saying:

  1. Show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.
  2. Tell me your company, and I’ll tell you who you are.
  3. By the company you keep I can tell what life you lead.

Would you please explore the provenance of this family of expressions?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the influential Spanish novel “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes which appeared in two parts published in 1605 and 1615. The Spanish title was “Ingenioso Cavallero Don Qvixote de la Mancha” (“Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha”). The second part in 1615 included the following passage using non-standard spelling. The saying was spoken by Sancho Panza who was the faithful servant and squire of the main character Don Quixote. Boldface added to excepts by QI:[ref] 1615, Title: Ingenioso Cavallero Don Qvixote de la Mancha (Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha), Author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Part: Segvnda Parte (Second Part), Capitulo 23 (Chapter 23), Quote on page 89 after and before unnumbered pages, Publication Data: Con privilegió, en Madrid, por Iuan de la Cuesta. (1905, Facsimile reprint by the Hispanic Society of America, New York) (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

A qui encaxa bien el refran, dixo Sancho, de dime, con quien andas, dezirte he quien eres . . .

Here is a slightly longer passage from an English translation by Charles Jarvis published in 1749. The statement above is included in the rendering below. The phrase “your worship” corresponds to Don Quixote in this context:[ref] 1749, The Life and Exploits of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Translated by Charles Jarvis, Volume 2, Second Edition, Quote Page 134 and 135, Printed for J. and R. Tonson and S. Draper, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Here, quoth Sancho, the proverb hits right, Tell me your company, and I will tell you what you are. If your worship keeps company with those who fast and watch, what wonder is it that you neither eat nor sleep while you are with them?

Miguel de Cervantes disclaimed credit for the saying by calling it proverbial; thus, it was already circulating in Spanish before 1615.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

This saying has an ancient precursor in the works of Greek tragedian Euripides who died circa 406 B.C. A translation of Euripides by Morris Hickey Morgan appeared in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”:[ref] 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Euripides, Quote Page 968, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Every man is like the company he is wont to keep.
Phoenix. Fragment 809

Also, a Latin proverb is listed in “The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern” edited by Burton Stevenson:[ref] 1949, The Home Book of Quotations: Classical and Modern, Selected by Burton Stevenson, Sixth Edition, Topic: Companions, Quote Page 288, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

He is known by his companions. (Noscitur a sociis.)
UNKNOWN. A Latin proverb.

The reference work “English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: A Historical Dictionary” by G. L. Apperson included a citation for a thematically related saying that appeared in 1586:[ref] 1929, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: A Historical Dictionary by G. L. Apperson (George Latimer Apperson), Topic: Tell, Quote Page 621, J. M. Dent and Sons Limited, London. Facsimile republished in 1969 by Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Verified with hardcopy of 1969 edition) [/ref]

Tell me with whom thou goest, And I’ll tell thee what thou doest.
1586: Pettie, tr. Guazzo’s Civil Convers., fo. 22

The first English translation of “Don Quixote” was performed by Thomas Shelton, and the two parts appeared in 1612 and 1620. The phrasing employed by Shelton given below differed a bit from the later interpretation by translator Charles Jarvis:[ref] 1896, The History of Don Quixote of the Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Translated by Thomas Shelton, Introduction by James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, (This is an 1896 reprint of the translation by Thomas Shelton which was originally published in 1612 and 1620; the quotation appeared in the second part published in 1620), Chapter 32, Quote Page 178, Published by David Nutt, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

That fits the Proverb, quoth Sancho, which sayes, You shall know the person by his company: you have beene amongst the enchanted, and those that watch and fast: no marvell therefore though you neyther slept nor eat whilest you were amongst them . . .

In 1683 the book “Moral Instructions of a Father To His Son Upon His Departure for a Long Voyage” included a careful explanation of the adage:[ref] 1683, Title: Moral Instructions of a Father To His Son Upon His Departure for a Long Voyage: or, An easie way to guide a young man towards all sorts of virtues, With an hundred maximes, Christian and moral, Author: Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, (1622-1687), Section: Of Personal Duties, Quote Page 27, Publication info: Printed for W. Crook, at the Green Dragon, near Devereaux Court, London. (Early English Books Online 2) link [/ref]

Consult Prudence, and she will teach you to choose your Friends, which is a thing of the highest consequence; because we acquire generally the Habits and Passions of those whom we frequent: This was so well known to our Fore-fathers, that they did not scruple to pass their Judgment upon any Man when they were once acquainted with the Temper of his Companions; according to this old Saying of theirs, Tell me what Company you keep and I will tell you what you are.

In 1709 a didactic book titled “The Royal French Grammar” included French and English instances of the saying:[ref] 1709, The Royal French Grammar: By Which One May, In a Short Time, Attain the French Tongue in Perfection (Grammaire Royale; Pour Apprendre Facilement La Langue Françoise Contenant), Section: Proverbs, Quote Page 344, Printed for J. Leui, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

Dis moi qui tu hantes, & je te dirai qui tu és.
Tell me your Company, and I shall tell you who you are.

In 1726 the reference “A New Dictionary, Spanish and English” included an entry for the proverb and presented instances in both languages:[ref] 1726, A New Dictionary, Spanish and English, and English and Spanish, Edited by Captain John Stevens, Entry: Díme, Unnumbered Page, Printed or J. Darby, A. Bettesworth, F. Favram, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Prov. Díme con quién andas, diréte quién eres: Tell me your company and I’ll tell you who you are. That is, by the company you keep I can tell what life you lead, for birds of a feather flock together.

In 1755 an edition of “Don Quixote” included the following alternative translation of the saying by T. Smollett:[ref] 1755, The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Translated by T. Smollett, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter 6, Quote Page 142, Printed for A. Millar, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Here then, said the squire, we may conveniently thrust in the proverb, Tell me your company, and I’ll tell you your manners.

Lord Chesterfield (Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield) wrote a famous series of letters to his son regarding proper manners and etiquette in the United Kingdom. A 1747 letter included an instance of the saying:[ref] 1774, The Life of The Late Lord Chesterfield: Or, The Man of the World, Including Speeches, Essays, Poems, and the Substance of the System of Education Delivered in a Series of Letters to His Son, (Letters Written by Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, to His Son, Philip Stanhope), Letter dated October 9, 1747, Start Page 126, Quote Page 127, Printed for H. Sauders, W. Sleater, D. Chamberlaine, and etc., Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

People will, in a great degree, and not without reason, form their opinion of you, upon that which they have of your friends; and there is a Spanish proverb, which says very justly, tell me who you live with, and I will tell you what you are. One may fairly suppose, that a man, who makes a knave or a fool his friend, has something very bad to do, or to conceal.

In 1814 a version using the word “associate” appeared in a compilation titled “Proverbs, Chiefly Taken from the Adagia of Erasmus, with Explanations”. Several adages were grouped under the Latin title “Corrumpunt Mores bonos Colloquia prava”:[ref] 1814, Proverbs, Chiefly Taken from the Adagia of Erasmus, with Explanations, Compiled by Robert Bland, Volume 1, Section: Corrumpunt Mores bonos Colloquia prava, Quote Page 236, Printed for T. Egerton, Military Library, Whitehall, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“Tell me,” we say, “with whom you associate, and I will tell you what you are.” “Che dorme co cani, si leva col le pulci,” those who sleep with dogs rise up with fleas, and “La mala compagnia, e quella che mena huomini a la furca,” it is bad company that brings men to the gallows.

In 1830 a version using the word “friends” appeared in a collection of sermons from Reverend Joseph Hordern:[ref] 1830, Sermons by The Rev. Joseph Hordern (Vicar of Rostherne), Chapter: Sermon XIX: The Christian’s Wisdom and Simplicity, Quote Page 209, C. J. and F. Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

There is an old saying which you will perhaps recollect, “tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you what you are.” Men generally judge of others from the company they keep . . .

The major German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died in 1832. A collection of his works published shortly afterward included a volume titled “Maximen und Reflexionen” (“Maxims and Reflections”) which contained the following passage:[ref] 1833, Goethe’s Werke, Volume Maximen und Reflexionen, (Maxims and Reflections) from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), Quote Page 22, Published by J.G. Cotta schen Buchhandlung, Stuttgart und Tübingen, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Sage mir mit wem du umgehst, so sage ich dir wer du bist; weiß ich womit du dich beschäftigst, so weiß ich was aus dir werden kann.

The words above have been rendered into English as follows:[ref] 1893, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Translated by Bailey Saunders, Chapter: Life and Character, Quote Page 60, Macmillan and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.

In conclusion, this general notion has an ancient provenance with Euripides. A close match was penned by Miguel de Cervantes in the second part of his celebrated Spanish opus “Don Quixote” in 1615. The character Sancho Panza delivered the line while indicating that it was a pre-existing proverb. Other prominent figures such as Lord Chesterfield and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe employed instances in later years.

Image Notes: Illustration of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Simon Kasif whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Update History: On September 21, 2022 citations for Euripides and a Latin proverb were added to the article.

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