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

Miguel de Cervantes? Don Quixote? Sancho Panza? 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: 1

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: 2

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.

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


  1. 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
  2. 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