English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What is the meaning of the proverb "Few lawyers die well, few physicians live well"?

I think "few physicians live well" has to do with the fact that the salary of physicians was once very low, but what about the "few lawyers die well" part? And the meaning of the proverb overall?

share|improve this question
Beats me. I Googled it and found references, but I still don't understand what it's supposed to mean. Undoubtedly it is from a bygone era, and has no currency anymore. – Robusto Dec 31 '12 at 21:23
What @Robusto said. But if I had to guess, maybe it's supposed to mean Lawyers (who cynically protect the interests of the rich), often come to a bad end when their clients are overthrown. As opposed to physicians, who once weren't particularly well paid. According to this, it has "equivalents in most Europeans languages". It certainly doesn't sound like a particularly British sentiment to me. – FumbleFingers Dec 31 '12 at 21:44
interesting one. i'm wondering if it's the same as le cordonnier est le plus mal chausé. – jlovegren Dec 31 '12 at 21:55
I had never heard the proverb before, but I interpreted it as meaning that few of either profession follow the advice they give their clients, about arranging their affairs and making a will in the one case, and about living healthily in the other. – Colin Fine Jan 1 '13 at 0:17
Old lawyers never die. They just rest in their cases. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 1 '13 at 10:56

I've always believed that it's a reference to two things: one, that doctors didn't use to earn much, and two, that lawyers were (are?) considered likely to end up in hell rather than in heaven. Hence, for one, this life sucks, and for the other, the afterlife sucks. (Nothing to back me up, though; sorry.)

share|improve this answer
And even if it's not a reference to the afterlife, it could still be a reference to a lawyer's status in the community when it's time to write the epitaph (that is, distrusted & disliked – if the stereotypes are to be believed). – J.R. Dec 31 '12 at 23:04
@J.R. At the time (18thC) physicians wern't looked upon in quite the same glowing light as they are today either. But then, they just didn't earn anything like as much as the evil legal profession. – spiceyokooko Jan 1 '13 at 0:18
@spicey: Gee, I wonder why... ("Broom Gilda, put a few leeches on his forehead.") – J.R. Jan 1 '13 at 0:26
@J.R. Hence my answer - they're both as bad as each other! Leeches, ergh! – spiceyokooko Jan 1 '13 at 0:32

This is a variant of the old proverb "The shoemaker's children go barefoot" (One often neglects those closest to oneself = the overall meaning of the proverb in the OP's question and in this answer).

Most of the many physicians I know (I'm a medical editor and my wife's a nurse) don't treat themselves as well as they treat their patients.

Many lawyers make their money by ensuring that their clients' assets are shielded from taxes and cannot be snatched by prodigal children in probate court, but they don't do the same for their own assets, so they shortchange themselves and their family.

share|improve this answer
Have you got any citations or references to support this? Otherwise it's just speculation and supposition on your behalf. It might fit physicians, but it doesn't fit well for lawyers. Tax shielding is only one very small part of what the legal profession does, the primary purpose is interpretation of the law. – spiceyokooko Jan 1 '13 at 14:36
It fits well for tax lawyers & corporate lawyers. Are you a lawyer? I went to law school & worked for a corporate law firm as a law clerk & law librarian. Lawyers are not about interpreting the law but about bending and spinning the law to protect their clients. There are exceptions, of course, but those exceptions are not the rule. Legal language is, as I said here a few days ago, polyester prose : synthetic language, artificial language, & the lawyer's art is persuasion, not interpretation. Pettifoggery is just another form of demagoguery. Personal experience: better than a citation. – user21497 Jan 1 '13 at 15:11
Can't say I agree. If law was written in a language simple enough for everyone to understand, we would not need lawyers. Unfortunately it isn't, it's arcane and archaic, hence the need for interpreters. – spiceyokooko Jan 1 '13 at 17:27
Judges interpret the law, not lawyers. Lawyers persuade judges & juries. Okay, to be a judge, one must be a lawyer (in most cases), but judges & lawyers have different functions. If laws were written in simple language, they wouldn't be written in natural language but in a programming language & a computer would be able to translate them into images or actions or characters. Thou shalt not kill is very simple language. What does it mean? It doesn't want a lawyer but a philosopher: It clearly doesn't mean what it says or we'd none of us be alive. Again, are you a lawyer? – user21497 Jan 1 '13 at 23:07
Still don't agree. Judges arbitrate and rule on the law as well as interpret it, very senior and experienced lawyers are appointed judges for this very reason. They don't just interpret the law, they rule on it. Laws are written deliberately ambiguously and open to interpretation to try and cover most and all eventualities. This is precisely why you can have two different lawyers interpreting the law in two different ways and getting a judge to rule on whose interpretation is the correct one! And if you read my profile page you'll see I'm not a lawyer. – spiceyokooko Jan 1 '13 at 23:24

To give more or less the same answer as @spiceyokooko (the source cited by that answerer comments that both doctors and lawyers were reputed to be atheists), but quoting from an well-aged source:

Physicians cure the bodies of the sick, and neglect the health of their souls. Lawyers diligent in observing the Laws of Men, however transgress the Commands of God: whence it is grown to be a Proverb, Neither Physicians live well, nor Lawyers die well; Physicians being the most disorderly sort of men, and Lawyers the most dishonest.

Henry Cornelius Agrippa (1676) The vanity of arts and sciences.

share|improve this answer

Yes, I found a quote from p 318 of “Sociology : pop culture to social structure” by Robert J Brym; John Lie. It says “Doctors had never earned much. In the 18th century it was commonly said that "Few lawyers die well, few physicians live well".

No new material on lawyers, though.

share|improve this answer

I think it means that both professions (lawyers and physicians) were viewed (at the time) with equal suspicion and some circumspection or at least not viewed particularly well.

There’s a link here that supports that contention.

share|improve this answer
The "equal suspicion" quote seems a little ambiguous as to whether it is referring to the professions or to the two authors who are the subject of the article, Browne and McKenzie. – Kristina Lopez Dec 31 '12 at 23:35
@KristinaLopez Are you stalking me? ;) My interpretation was that the two authors were of different professions, one probably a lawyer and one probably a physician, otherwise how could the phrase have been relevant? To my mind it does make the most sense of any of the explanations so far given, but that counts for nothing on this site! – spiceyokooko Dec 31 '12 at 23:40
Lol! No more than anyone else, Spicy! I guess we gravitate to the same type of questions. – Kristina Lopez Dec 31 '12 at 23:45
@KristinaLopez Yes we seem to head for the same kind of questions (I do because they're easier!) but I never seem to do as well as you do at them! :-) – spiceyokooko Dec 31 '12 at 23:48
Thanks, but i can tell you're getting better all the time! – Kristina Lopez Dec 31 '12 at 23:51

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.