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I'm not sure which one of these apparently flatly contradictory proverbs I heard first but I have definitely heard both several times. One of them is:

There is honour among thieves.

Another is:

No honour among thieves.

Do they simply mean the opposite of each other, therefore, at least in my mind cancelling each other out, or is there a subtlety here that I am not picking up on? Are they related, perhaps sharing an origin and then somehow becoming inverted?

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I may be completely wrong, but I always assumed that one of these was a proverb, and that the other had simply come as a result of the original being lost in translation, or forgotten. –  GnomeSlice Oct 6 '11 at 15:12
Having just had a package stolen from my doorstep this afternoon, I feel confident saying there's none. –  onomatomaniak Oct 6 '11 at 16:16
I would say that they mean the opposite of each other, and reflect conflicting worldviews. –  Karl Knechtel Oct 7 '11 at 7:42
Trust and mistrust as a professional courtesy, per Shakespeare! –  drdrmyles Dec 30 '13 at 17:16
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4 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The classic proverb holds that, "There is honor among thieves.”1

The meaning, of course, is the concept of "professional courtesy," that even the disreputable and unethical do - particularly among themselves - adhere to various sorts of moral codes of conduct.2

As to the converse, "no honor among thieves," the meaning is self-explanatory. Curiously, the concept isn't limited to the English-speaking world, as evidenced by this Spanish proverb: Piensa el ladrón que todos son de su condición. (The thief thinks that all are of his condition.)3

1 Early nineteenth century. "The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations," Fifth Edition, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2001). Page 612:11.
2 Also: "Honor is sometimes found among thieves." [Walter Scott]
3 http://www.elearnspanishlanguage.com/vocabulary/expressions/ex-proverbs.html

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Thank you for the edits, Martha. I'll remember that formatting. –  The Raven Oct 6 '11 at 18:04
Identical to the Spanish proverb is the Danish tyv tror hver mand stjæler, lit. ‘thief thinks every man steals’. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 30 '13 at 22:56
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They are both well-known idioms that simply mean what they say and complement each other very well. There is honor among thieves conveys the idea that even people of lesser integrity can find trust in each other, if only for a short time, and at the same time mistrust each other, hence no honor among thieves.

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"There is honor among thieves.” is to say that there is a code of conduct ranging from a mere professional courtesy, to a complete set of in-house rules in a group, band, or guild of thieves working in cooperation. "There is no honor among thieves.” is used to express when situations when such systems break down, or the greedy nature of thieves interferes with their code of ethics... It is also used to express that the breaking down of such a code of ethics seems inevitable.

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I love the closely related quote from J.R.R. Tolkin's Lord or the Rings:

The treacherous are ever distrustful.

Which carries a similar meaning as your second form No honour among thieves. This derived form (by me) makes sense, too:

Even a traitor can trust.

Which would coincide with There is honour among thieves.

I think both forms make sense and do not actually contradict each other. They are not opposites. One would not bother to state that there is honour among thieves if it wasn't a rare and remarkable commodity.

The (contradicting) opposite would be:

Honourable people steal a lot.
Trusting people will always betray you.


All thieves are honourable.
The treacherous are trusting people.
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