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I'm having trouble understanding the rationale behind the meaning of an American English phrase of which I just became aware. That phrase is:

You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar

From what I understand now, this phrase would indicate that You make more friends by being nice than by being rude. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

My confusion comes from the fact that no one catches flies in order to do anything nice to them (Well, I suppose some people do. But it's not common!). When I first read it, I actually thought the phrase meant You'll have more success luring people into a trap by being nice than by being rude. This didn't make much sense in context, though, which led me to ask around about the phrase.

Where does this phrase come from? More importantly, why does it have such a counter-intuitive meaning?

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You don't catch flies in order to be nice to them; you catch flies by being nice to them. Flies are not attracted by vinegar; flies might well be attracted by honey. –  Jonathan Leffler Aug 27 '11 at 0:11
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You're reading too much into the metaphor...the point is not what you're going to do with the flies (or people) you attract. –  JeffSahol Aug 27 '11 at 0:15
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I risk confusing the jadarnel with this aside, but a funny observation has been made that you actually attract more fruit flies with vinegar than honey, because the acetic acid in vinegar makes them think they sense fruit. Of course, the point stands that you can get what you want done better with sweetness/kindness rather than with a caustic attitude. –  Jeremy Aug 27 '11 at 1:51
    
I just found out something amazing about flies, vinegar, and honey that turns this old idiom on its ear! I read about the design of a fly trap that attracts them with vinegar, but traps them with honey. It's an inverted jar, and the flies, lured in by the smell of the vinegar (vinegar smells like rotting fruit to them, which they adore) are tricked into going higher up the jar, where the sides are coated with honey. They get stuck on the honey. I think the basic meaning of the saying remains intact, that if we want people to do what we want, we should be sweet and not rude to them. –  user38166 Feb 24 '13 at 2:03
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The poorest recitation of this bit of folk wisdom that I've ever seen was in a manuscript in which the author wrote, "As the old saying goes, you can kill more bees with kindness than vinegar." –  Sven Yargs Feb 24 '13 at 2:17

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

You catch more flies with honey than vinegar or, sometimes you catch more flies with honey is an English proverb. It doesn't have a counter-intuitive meaning--if you are trying to catch flies, you are literally going to attract more with honey. That is, you're going to get what you want (in the proverb flies, but in life any goal) with sweetness rather than acidity.

This answer explains it similarly:

Flies represents anything you want to achieve. Honey (sweet) represents anything pleasant that you do to get what you want. Vinegar (sour) represents anything unpleasant that you do to get what you want. It tells you to use nice methods rather than unkind methods in dealing with other people.

This is a saying that means: you will be more successful in life being sweeter, or nice rather than being, mean to people, not nice and doing hurtful, dishonest things in life.

This forum makes some guesses at its origins, noting:

The proverb has been traced back to G. Torriano's 'Common Place of Italian Proverbs' . It first appeared in the United States in Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanac' in 1744, and is found in varying forms..." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

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Fantastic! That's exactly what I was looking for. It seems kind of silly that I missed the whole point now. Thanks! –  jadarnel27 Aug 27 '11 at 5:50
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Funny - I only ever think of this phrase when the flies refer to someone/something I'm unhappy with, as a reminder that civility is the best solution to dealing with obnoxious coworkers/bratty children/crazy mothers. The neutral (and potentially positive) interpretation of flies as "anything you want to achieve" had never crossed my mind. –  onomatomaniak Oct 1 '11 at 15:36

It comes from catching flies. I think your main problem with this is, why would you catch flies? The reason could possibly be put down to catching flies to get rid of them. However, the underlying meaning of this idiom is that , you would experience more success if you were to be nice, rather than be un-nice. The analogy drawn here, is "honey" (sweet-tempered), and vinegar (sour-tempered).

The Phrase Finder states its origin:

.The proverb has been traced back to G. Torriano's 'Common Place of Italian Proverbs' . It first appeared in the United States in Benjamin Franklin's 'Poor Richard's Almanac' in 1744, and is found in varying forms..." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).

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Yes I agree that the fly refers to a negative situation or person. A fly is no-one's friend. Flies are not welcome, desired or embraced. A fly is a pest. I agree that the deeper meaning of this proverb refers to dealing with the unpleasant. And further that to disarm an unpleasant person or situation, one is wiser to use humour, sweet love and kindness, understanding and compassion rather than bitterness, anger, aggression and the like.

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I think the appropriateness of using flies in this saying is very relevant if taking into context when someone wants to use vinegar (bitterness/meanness). Usually a bitter response is used when someone is being annoying or a pest (just like flies) when trying to reach your goal. That makes the saying mean to not only be kind, but to be kind in the face of an annoyance in hopes that the annoyance will go away (catching flies).

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Yes, I would agree: flies don’t represent something desirable here. It’s more to simply illustrate the point of how one goes about achieving a particular goal.

If you’ve ever lived on a farm, you know that catching flies is necessary, as they are bothersome to animals and people alike, which is why traps are installed for this purpose. But I don’t think honey is used anymore.

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Your remarks on the necessity of fly-catching are not pertinent to the question. –  StoneyB Sep 15 '12 at 12:48

protected by RegDwigнt Nov 16 '13 at 4:10

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