Dorothy L. Sayers? George Eliot? Thomas Fuller? George Herbert? George Latimer Apperson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The ongoing pandemic reminded me of an eccentric proverb I once heard:
Love and a cough cannot be hidden.
The prominent mystery wrote Dorothy L. Sayers once referred to a statement like this. Would you please explore the history of this remark?
Quote Investigator: These types of adages have been circulating for several hundred years. Each variant lists a set of conditions or emotions which are difficult to conceal because they are expressed spontaneously or uncontrollably.
George Latimer Apperson’s important reference “English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases” contains an entry that that begins with a citation circa 1300: 1
Love and a cough cannot be hid.
c. 1300: Cursor Mundi, l. 4276
In 1590 a pertinent adage appeared in the book titled “The Royal Exchange Contayning sundry aphorismes of phylosophie, and golden principles of morrall and naturall quadruplicities”. This title reveals that spelling was not standardized in 1590. Here are standard spellings for three words that occur in the passage below: foure, four; hydden, hidden; loue, love. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2
There are foure things cannot be hydden.
1. The cough.
4. And sorrow.
These affectons are addicted to much impatience, and maketh a man so passionate, as they are almost impossible to be concealed.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1640 an instance occurred in a collection of “Outlandish Proverbs” compiled by George Herbert. Below is the germane saying together with a sampling of four other adages: 3
- MAN Proposeth, God disposeth.
- Humble Hearts, have humble desires.
- The scalded dog feares cold water.
- Love, and a Cough cannot be hid.
- A Dwarfe, on a Gyants shoulder, sees further of the two.
In 1657 a volume edited by Edward Leigh and his son Henry Leigh included a set of French proverbs with English translations. The word smoke was spelled as smoak: 4
Amour, toux, fumée & argent, on ne peut cacher longuement.
Love, the cough, the smoak and money, can not long be hidden by any.
In 1732 an instance appeared in Thomas Fuller’s famous collection “Gnomologia”: 5
- Love requires Boldness, and scorns Bashfulness.
- Love, the Itch, and a Cough cannot be hid.
- Love thy Neighbour; but cut not up thy Hedge for him.
In 1863 prominent author George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans) referred to the adage in her novel “Romola”: 6
. . . if there are two things not to be hidden—love and a cough—I say there is a third, and that is ignorance, when once a man is obliged to do something besides wagging his head.
In 1935 mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers published “Gaudy Night” which included the following instance: 7
It is said that love and a cough cannot be hid. Nor is it easy to hide two-and-thirty outsize ivory chessmen; unless one is so inhuman as to leave them swaddled in their mummy-clothes of wadding and entombed within the six sides of a wooden sarcophagus.
In conclusion, a saying within this family was circulating by the 1300s. Many variants have evolved over the centuries. Novelists George Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers referred to the “love and a cough” version of the adage within their novels.
(Great thanks to the Dorothy L. Sayers enthusiast whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1929, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases: A Historical Dictionary by G. L. Apperson (George Latimer Apperson), Topic: Love, Quote Page 384, Column 1, J. M. Dent and Sons Limited, London, Facsimile republished in 1969 by Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Verified with hardcopy of 1969 edition) ↩
- 1590, Title: The Royal Exchange Contayning sundry aphorismes of phylosophie, and golden principles of morrall and naturall quadruplicities, Author: Oraziofin Rinaldi, Publisher: Offered to the cittie of London. Rob. Greene, in Artibus Magister, Printer: Printed by I. Charlewood for William VVright At London. (Early English Books Online EEBO) link ↩
- 1640, Title: Outlandish Proverbs, selected by Mr. G.H. (George Herbert 1593-1633), Unnumbered Page, Proverb Number 49, Printer: Printed by T. Paine for Humphrey Blunden; at the Castle in Corn-hill, London. (Early English Books Online EEBO) link ↩
- 1657, Title: Select and choyce observations, containing all the Romane emperours the first eighteen by Edward Leigh; the others added by his son Henry Leigh, Editors: Edward Leigh (1602-1671), Henry Leigh (died 1705), Section: French Proverbs collected out of Gruterus, de la Noue, and other Authors, Printer: Printed by Roger Daniel, for John Williams, London. (Early English Books Online EEBO) link ↩
- 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Collected by Thomas Fuller, Proverb Number 3298, Quote Page 141, Printed for B. Barker, A. Bettesworth, and C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1863, Romola by George Eliot, Chapter VI: Dawning Hopes, Quote Page 34, Column 1, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1958 (1935 Copyright), Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, Chapter 20, Quote Page 296, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London. (Verified with scans) ↩