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Recently I made an inadvertent mistake, which reminded me a familiar Japanese proverb to admonish us to stay away from situation and the likelihood to be suspected as a rule-offender. It is a set of words, 李下に冠を正さず - Don’t touch your coronet under the plum tree, and瓜田に靴を入れずDon’t wear shoes in cucurbit field, lest you should be suspected as a cucurbit or plum fruit thief.

I understand the proverb came from the passage, 君子防未然。不処嫌疑間。瓜田不納履、李下不正冠 that can be translated as “Gentlemen prevent problems in advance. Don’t wear shoes in cucurbit field. Don’t touch your coronet under the plum tree,” in君子行 (Gentleman’s Conduct) in Chinese classic literature,古楽府.

We also have a proverb, 転ばぬ先の杖 – Walk with a stick before you stumble (on stone) referring to preparedness, but it’s different from李下に冠を正さず in meaning.

Are there similar English proverbs or maxims as李下に冠を正さずthat admonish us to keep away from the habit, or taking action to get involved in the unexpected problem or disaster as a result? I would like to tell it to myself.

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    Not sure why the shoes or the coronet, but the general idea of your question is clear. (Some English speakers might not be familiar with the word cucurbit, which means any plant in family Cucurbitaceae, the cucumber family.) I can't think of English proverbs about being prepared or avoiding being mistaken for a thief. Hopefully someone else can. – Drew Nov 9 '14 at 4:41
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    @Drew If you reach up (to your head, to touch your coronet) when you're under a plumb tree, it might look like you're reaching up to steal plums. – ChrisW Nov 9 '14 at 15:24
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    I'm not sure I understand the original proverbs. Why would wearing shoes in the cucurbit field make you look like a thief? – starsplusplus Nov 9 '14 at 17:53
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    @Starsplusplus. In ancient time, farmers who raise crops, vegetables, and fruits worked barefoot in the field. You see barefoot villagers in outlands in any corners of the world even today. If they find someone wearing shoes (which is unusual on the farm) steps into their watermelon patch, he will be suspected as a stranger who is going to steal watermelons by the owner of the farm and villagers. – Yoichi Oishi Nov 9 '14 at 20:38
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    On some level I feel like even if there is an equivalent saying it isn't very common here in the US, possibly because this sentiment is somewhat counter to our cultural assumptions, e.g. innocent until proven guilty, it's a free country, etc. "Why should I care what they think? I'm not stealing anything." – DCShannon Nov 10 '14 at 6:02

17 Answers 17

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I can't think of any exactly like yours. There are lots of idioms about being careful or avoiding obviously unwise situations, some of them are:

  • "Better safe than sorry." (be careful not to take unnecessary risks)
  • "Look before you leap." (be careful not to hurry and in your haste make a bad decision)
  • "Don't spit into the wind." (also piss) (Don't do something that has a very good chance of turning out badly for you)
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    And you don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with Jim. Probably one of the best cultural references, although probably not so well known to younger people. – Hot Licks Nov 9 '14 at 17:05
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    I don't think there's a real equivalent, but these seem pretty close. Another one might be "don't play with matches/fire". – DCShannon Nov 10 '14 at 5:57
  • “Don't piss into the wind” is often(ish) quoted in its Latin form, which is closer to the Japanese proverb: vir prudens non contra ventum mingit ‘a wise man does not piss against the wind’. A decent fit, though it lacks the element of suspicion or ill deeds of its Japanese counterpart. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 10 '14 at 11:39
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    @ChrisW What’s left is “a proverb which recommends avoiding an action which would result in something unpleasant or unwanted for the actor himself”, which is more or less the same thing, only at a more generic level. Since consensus here seems to be that an exact match on all levels is not likely to be found, I’d say this is probably as close as you can get. Whether it will be a useful substitute in practice will depend on the specific context and the relative importance of the suspected ill deeds in it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 10 '14 at 13:35
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    @Tonny - Doesn't everything? – Hot Licks Nov 10 '14 at 16:23
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I'm going to suggest you to remain above suspicion.

Because, the main idea in your question is "don't do things that can make you look suspicious".

The idiom "above suspicion" comes from Caesar's famous statement about his wife:

Caesar's wife must be above suspicion.


above suspicion - [for one] to be honest enough that no one would suspect one; in a position where one could not be suspected. (*Typically: be ~; keep oneself ~; remain ~.)

Dictionary Source: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/suspicioning

  • To support my answer: On a website, it is mentioned as a moral of the story by a rabbi regarding to a concern about arousing suspicion of shoplifting. Source: ohr.edu/3571 – ermanen Nov 9 '14 at 7:43
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    The idiom is: to BE above suspicion We don't normally say: "remain above suspicion". The meaning doesn't change, it's similar to being irreproachable. – Mari-Lou A Nov 9 '14 at 8:25
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    @Mari-LouA: I say. "Remain" is a better verb if you are suggesting it to someone. – ermanen Nov 9 '14 at 8:28
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    @Mari-LouA: Yes I mentioned that in Caesar's statement. I just didn't want to iterate again. "Above suspicion" is an idiom itself too. But it is usually used with be or remain. "Remain" has a more prevalent usage than "stay". Also, "be","remain" and "keep yourself" are mentioned in TFD. – ermanen Nov 9 '14 at 8:43
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    That is idiomatic but not a proverb. – denten Nov 10 '14 at 1:00
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People should not only avoid impropriety but also avoid even the Appearance of impropriety.

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    Although not as poetic as the fable described in the question, I think this is the closest translation which would be widely understood. – AmeliaBR Nov 10 '14 at 2:17
  • Yes, it's not a "proverb" at all. It's a ... I don't know what you'd call it: an "idiom" or "jargon" or a "well-known phrase". – ChrisW Nov 10 '14 at 2:21
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With regard to the conclusion that one should stay away from situations that may mark one as a rule breaker even if one is innocent, I am reminded not of any particular English proverb, but of Aesop's fable of the farmer and the stork. The book Aesop for Children, which my parents used to read to me and my siblings when we were young, tells the story this way:

THE FARMER AND THE STORK

A Stork of a very simple and trusting nature had been asked by a gay party of Cranes to visit a field that had been newly planted. But the party ended dismally with all the birds entangled in the meshes of the Farmer's net.

The Stork begged the Farmer to spare him.

"Please let me go," he pleaded. "I belong to the Stork family who you know are honest and birds of good character. Besides, I did not know the Cranes were going to steal."

"You may be a very good bird," answered the Farmer, "but I caught you with the thieving Cranes and you will have to share the same punishment with them."

Moral: You are judged by the company you keep.

The poignancy of this story is increased by the fact that, whereas cranes love to eat grain (and other seeds), as well as small animals, storks much prefer a diet of fish, frogs, insects, mice, etc.; so the stork could hardly have done any damage to the farmer's crop by associating with the cranes. But the farmer either didn't know that fact or didn't care.

By the way, the moral that the anonymous author of Aesop for Children drew from this fable is not Aesop's; an equally valid conclusion might be When you are caught in a compromising situation, appearances may count for more than actual intentions.

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    It was a year ago, September / a day I well remember / I was walking up and down / in drunken pride / when my knees began to flutter / and I fell down in the gutter / and a pig came by and lay down by my side / As I lay there in the gutter / thinking thoughts I could not utter / I thought I heard a passing lady say, / "You can tell a man who boozes / by the company he chooses..." / And with that, the pig got up and walked away. – Mynamite Nov 9 '14 at 23:32
  • What a horrible farmer person. – Neil Kirk Nov 10 '14 at 2:15
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    @Sven Yargs. "Farmer and the crane" allegory is interesting. But weighing with alternatives suggested by Medica and Mari-LouA, I thought Medica's ones (Look before you leap and Don't spit into the wind) looked closer to the original concept, “Gentlemen prevent problems in advance." I wonder I can rephrase "spit" in “Don't spit intto the wind" with "piss," which sounds more humorous. – Yoichi Oishi Nov 10 '14 at 2:45
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    @Yoichi Oishi: I agree with your reasoning. I'm familiar with the expression "Don't [or "Never"] piss into the wind" as homespun advice; and I think that a lot of other people in the United States have used or heard that saying, too. Moreover, it—like Erik Kowal's suggestions and medica's other nominees—is a lot closer to a proverb (which is what you asked for) than is the fable I suggested. – Sven Yargs Nov 10 '14 at 3:13
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    @NeilKirk: German has "mitgefangen, mitgehangen" -- you get caught with them, you get hanged with them. – DevSolar Nov 11 '14 at 9:12
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It'll probably never rise to the status of a saying, but good advice nonetheless:

"Never pick your nose at an auction!"

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    Sound advice. I've been in that exact situation. Lucky for me 2 other guys started a bidding war after my accidental bid. No idea what I would have done with a pallet of chain-saws. – Tonny Nov 10 '14 at 16:17
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    But this definitely should be a saying. I will certainly start using it :) – Rab Nov 11 '14 at 16:32
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"Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas".

"A man is known by the company he keeps".

"Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you".

"The rotten apple spoils its neighbours".

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    I don't really think they are relevant, unless I've seriously mistaken the question. – o0'. Nov 9 '14 at 22:25
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    @Lohoris - I think you've mistaken the question. The OP said (and here I paraphrase) that he recalled certain Japanese proverbs warning one to stay away from situations and circumstances where one might be suspected of committing an offence of some kind. I put it to you that keeping bad company and muckraking or meddling exemplify this type of situation. – Erik Kowal Nov 10 '14 at 0:17
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    Yes but those you list mean "don't hang out with bad people". The meaning he was searching instead was "don't do things that might be mistaken as suspicious". So your is a very strict and small subset of the one requested. – o0'. Nov 10 '14 at 8:53
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    @Lohoris - If I'd been able to identify some proverbs that explicitly conveyed the precise meaning you have cited, I would certainly have included them. But I don't believe there are any: if you disagree, see if you can do any better. I will be the first to upvote any that match your criteria. :) – Erik Kowal Nov 10 '14 at 9:07
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    I suppose it is; but even his suggestion ("Caesar's wife must be above suspicion") doesn't quite cut it, because the underlying meaning of that saying is "People in positions of power or prominence have a particular duty to behave in an exemplary manner". In other words, it's not a general warning to avoid being caught in circumstances that might lead others to suspect you of having done something underhand, which is the connotation the questioner was hoping to find expressed in the proverbs suggested in the answers. – Erik Kowal Nov 10 '14 at 9:38
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"Abstain from all appearance of evil." 1 Thessalonians 5:22

"But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock" 1 Corinthians 8:9

These verses are often interpreted (a) (b) (c) (d) (e) (f) as a recommendation to try to avoid actions and situations that, while technically not crossing over the line into wrong-doing, come so close enough to that line that others suspect you are doing wrong.

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Another similar and common idiom is the idea, common in Jewish scholarship, but also seen elsewhere, of a fence around the law. As in, going beyond the most basic requirements of the rules, to ensure that you don't fall afoul of them by skirting too close. The classic example is, that while Jewish law merely restricts the use of tools (such as a pencil) to perform work (such as writing) on the sabbath, many Jews will refrain from even handling such tools, lest they give the wrong impression, or, worse yet, forget the restriction and begin to use them (I.e. idly doodling).

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"Avoid the very appearance of evil" is widely used in this sense. I would have wagered that it was the King James Version (Authorized Version) translation of the Greek original, but it seems "Abstain from all appearance of evil" is what the KJV actually says. At any rate the "Avoid..." form is what I've generally seen and heard. Google turned up over 32,000 instances in a quick search.

  • You might also want to search for the expression "Honi soit qui mal y pense". It is the mirror image of the expression you're seeking. It is usually translated "Evil to him who thinks evil" or loosely "How dare you assume I'm stealing your fruit because I adjusted my hat!" – undefined Nov 9 '14 at 22:21
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I feel like the old "If it looks/walks/quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck" might be applicable here.

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Some common idioms and one proverb which warn against acting on impulse

Proverb: A person who does not plan ahead and think matters through becomes involved in risky or unfavorable situations which prudent people avoid. Often abbreviated as fools rush in

Wikitionary

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We have some that are similar in a way, but the ones that are well known (at least to me) come out of urban or bureaucratic culture rather than agrarian culture. We probably have some older agrarians ones that I'm not aware of. Some examples...

For avoiding accusations of wrongdoing, mistakes, legal penalties: "Cover your ass." Abbreviated CYA when it is not acceptable to pronounce the word "ass."

The above is similar in the sense that it arises out of the same desire to avoid being accused. The possibly related phrase "don't show your ass" is used to warn someone not to behave in a way that makes them seem "low-class."

For avoiding the perception that you belong to a lower social order: "You can tell a person by the company they keep." Or more poetically, "you can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses."

Perhaps the above is related to the sayings you mentioned, since your sayings seem to be about nobility or merchant class folk who are trying not to be confused with drifters, drunks, highwaymen, or petty thieves.

  • For completeness, the phrase "you can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses" goes back at least as far as 1933, when it was part of the song "The Pig Got Up and Slowly Walked Away. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pig_Got_Up_and_Slowly_Walked_Away It may have (probably did?) existed in that form before that. – Rab Nov 10 '14 at 17:24
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I can think of a few more proverbs/idioms which are somewhat similar to yours in meaning.

As for the meaning of preparedness in your proverb: A stitch in time saves nine refers to sewing. A garment might have a small tear, if you're able to repair it soon enough, it will save you more stitches (trouble) in the future.

For the meaning of not doing something risky or there will be bad consequences in your proverb: The expression play with fire and you'll get burned is pretty straightforward.

And finally, if you don't want to stick out in the watermelon patch because you're wearing shoes, we also have a proverb which is quite close to this meaning: When in Rome, do as the Romans. This is usually said to someone to warn them not to draw undue attention to themselves or to simply tell them to try and fit in and things should work out better for them. It's also used by someone who is trying to explain their unusual actions to a fellow compatriot in a foreign situation.

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There is a saying that is similar to the meaning but different in tense "Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time". It usually means someone is simply near a crime scene and despite the fact that they are innocent, they manage to look guilty, for example...

Alice has been brutally murdered, and her husband Bob, was seen walking out of the building with a meat cleaver. He got arrested on suspicion, but he was just going to the knife shop to get his cleaver sharpened!

  • He was actually gonna kill her after he sharpened it, but someone beat him to it. – Sidney Nov 10 '14 at 18:47
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Don't do the crime if you can't do the time is the closest expression I can think of. ("Doing time" means spending time in prison.)

However, it is not equivalent to your expression. "Don't do the crime…" warns of real consequences for wrongdoing, whereas 瓜田李下 (roughly summarized as "Tying your shoes in a melon patch") warns about false accusations that are likely to be made based on suspicious-looking activity.

Instead of a proverb, I'd simply say: Avoid suspicion or Be beyond reproach.

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'Ceasar's wife' sounds like the closest of all these suggestions, but it lacks the imperative 'admonishing' quality of the originals. I suggest we adopt them into English: 'Don't straighten your hat under a plum tree' and 'Don't wear track shoes into a melon patch'.

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Never piss in another man's soup is my personal generic favourite at the moment.

Distasteful, but exceedingly accurate in your instance is Never wear an Anorak to a playground.

protected by tchrist Feb 22 '15 at 3:59

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