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Near the end of Book I, chapter 17 of Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens writes:

There are the beggars on horseback too, in another sense from the sense of the proverb. These are mounted and ready to start on the highway to affluence.

When I read this, I thought that the "proverb" Dickens was alluding to was "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." But a note in the Everyman edition of the book says that the relevant adage is "Set a beggar on horse-back, and he'll ride to the devil."

I have two questions: 1. Which of these two expressions is older? 2. Did they arise independently, or is one in some sense a retort to the other?

A quick survey of Ngram Reader results reveals an instance of "if wishes were horses" from 1719, in the translator's preface to Monsieur Bossu's treatise of the epick poem:

...language from his royal majesty ensued, and then we were formally introduced to the fraternity by their assumed titles. "If wishes were horses," says the proverb, "beggars would ride;" and, as if in exemplification of the adage, these ... [snippet]

From W. Goodall, The Adventures of Captain Greenland (1752), we have this:

But there is an ancient saying, that, set a Beggar on Horseback, and he will ride to the Devil. Now, whether that Saying was verify'd here or not, we shall not presume to understand.

But we also seem to have a truncated version of the saying in John Trapp, Solomonis Panaretos: Or a Commentarie Upon the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (1650):

The Crown of the wise is their riches; but yet give them a foole, you put a sword into a mad man's hand; the folly of such fools will soon be foolishnesse. Why? was it not foolishnesse before they were rich? yes, but now it is become egregious foolishnesse. [Greek quotation omitted] the earth cannot beare the insolencies of such. Set a beggar on horseback, &c.

All three of these quotations suggest that the adages are already thoroughly established at the time of the writers' citing them.

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2 Answers

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The horseback idiom appears older than the wishes one by around 100 years. The older one seems to be based upon a Latin phrase from around 400 AD, with this particular translation by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy of 1621.

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride

In addition to Monsieur Bossu of 1719, it's listed in a proverbs book two years later:

Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs - Page 178 - James Kelly - 1721

Eng Forsake for 18 I will never drite in my Bonnet and set it on my Head I will never make a whore of the Woman that I resolve to marry or marry the Woman I have made a Whore of 19 If Wishes were Horses Beggars would ride 20 It is ill 1 Kitchin that keeps the Bread away We may make the best of what we have though not all we Wish for As if one should fay I have Bread to give you but nothing to eat with it We answer let us have the Bread however

19. If Wishes were Horses, Beggars would ride.

Interestingly, the other horseback idiom also appears in this book, along with a Latin phrase:

Set a Beggar on Horse back and he ll ride to the Dee I Lat Asperius nihil est humili cum surges in altum

110. Set a Beggar on Horse-back and he'll ride to the Dee'l.

Lat. Asperius nihil est humili cum surget in altum.

More on that later.

Set a beggar on horseback, and he'll gallop

The John Trapp of 1650 appears to be a valid truncation, as three years later we find the full proverb:

"The Fourth Book of Dr. Francis Rabelais" - The works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, doctor in physick - Volume 2 - Page 238 - François Rabelais, Navarre society, London - 1653

Fryar Jhon began to paw, neigh and whinny at the Snout's end, as one ready to leap, or at least to play the Ass, and to get up and ride tantivy to the Devil like a Beggar on Horseback.

(Tantivy means at full gallop.)

And earlier, in a list of proverbs:

"Certaine Prouerbes ... of the English Nation in former Times, and some of this present Age." - Remaines concerning Britaine: But especially England, and the Inhabitants Thereof - Page 272 - William Camden - 1629

topay SAue a theefe from the gallowes and hele cut thy throat Saying and doing are two things Scldome commcth the better Seldomeseene is soone fc gottea Seise doe selfehauc y Shame takchim that stiame thinkcth Shameful crauing musthauefliarneftill nay Set a beggar a horseback and he wil gallop Small pitchers baucwideeares So many headsib many wits i l v iv Soft fire maketh sweet malt i & TMl b Somewhat is betterthan nothing ty S1WJ3 r Soone gotten oonc spent uk ron Soone hot oone cold Soone ripe oone rotten cy So long goes the pot to the water that at length it comes home broken Sparetospeake parctospcede Spcakefairc and thinke what you wilh Spend and God will fend Store is no fore Struggle not against the streame Such a rather such a sonne Such beginning such end i r Such lips suchfettice 1 i 3 w I m Such welcome such farewell i v Such Carpenters uch chips Sweet meat will haue sowre sewcc Short hooting looses the game CV 1 r if

Set a beggar a horseback,and he wil gallop.

And Wikiquote attributes it earlier, from 1621:

Set a beggar on horseback, and he will ride a gallop.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Part II, Section III. Memb. 2.

Checking the source, we find a Latin phrase:

And though by their education such men may be better qualified, and more refined; yet there be many symptoms by which they may likely be descried, an affected fantastical carriage, a tailor-like spruceness, a peculiar garb in all their proceedings; choicer than ordinary in his diet, and as Hierome well describes such a one to his Nepotian; An upstart born in a base cottage, that scarce at first had coarse bread to fill his hungry guts, must now feed on kickshaws and made dishes, will have all variety of flesh and fish, the best oysters, &c. A beggar's brat will be commonly more scornful, imperious, insulting, insolent, than another man of his rank: Nothing so intolerable as a fortunate fool, as Tully found out long since out of his experience; Asperius nihil est humili cum surgit in altum, set a beggar on horseback, and he will ride a gallop, a gallop, &c.

Asperius nihil est humili cum surgit in altum

Here's a likewise English-Latin translation from 1672, and English-Latin-French-Italian from 1678.

Wiktiquote attributes this Latin to the Alexandrian poet Claudianus (c. 370 – 404):

  • Asperius nihil est humili cum surgit in altum.

    • Nothing is more annoying than a low man raised to a high position.

    • Claudianus, In Eutropium, I, 181. in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 93-96.

Here's the full passage from In Eutropium:

Asperius nihil est humili cum surgit in altum: cuncta ferit dum cuncta timet, desaevit in omnes ut se posse putent, nec belua taetrior ulla quam servi rabies in libera terga furentis; agnoscit gemitus et poenae parcere nescit, quam subiit, dominique memor, quem verberat, odit. adde, quod eunuchus nulla pietate movetur nec generi natisve cavet. clementia cunctis in similes, animosque ligant consortia damni; iste nec eunuchis placidus.

And translated:

Nothing is so cruel as a man raised from lowly station to prosperity; he strikes everything, for he fears everything; he vents his rage on all, that all may deem he has the power. No beast so fearful as the rage of a slave let loose on free-born backs; their groans are familiar to him, and he cannot be sparing of punishment that he himself has undergone; remembering his own master he hates the man he lashes. Being a eunuch also he is moved by no natural affection and has no care for family or children. All are moved to pity by those whose circumstances are like their own; similitude of ills is a close bond. Yet he is kind not even to eunuchs.

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Some elements for Q1: an earlier version of the first proverb

"If wishes were horses, beggers wald ryde" is dated 1628.

But at the time it seems that a variant of the same phrase was more common, according to Camden in his book on "Remaines concerning Britaine":

"If wishes were thrushes, then beggers would eate birds" (1637)

But the same Camden in the 1614 edition of the same book gives a

"Set a begger at horseback and he will gallop"

and does not mention the "if wishes...". Also this 1611 German book on European proverbs does not mention the "if" one but does a version of the "set a ".
I'd chance that "set a beggar" is the earlier of the two in some modified version, then the "if wishes" and, finally, came about the "set a beggar" with a devil reference.

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