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While investigating an unrelated expression, I came across the following proverb in George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum ; or Outlandish Proverbs, Sentences, Etc., second edition (1651):

Milk says to wine, Welcome friend.

I checked a number of other proverb collections, and found several that include this saying (often with a citation to Herbert’s book), but I couldn’t find an earlier source for it. My questions are:

  1. What is the origin of “Milk says to wine, Welcome friend”?

  2. What does the proverb mean?

  • 2
    Maybe, the source is George Herbert. – ermanen Feb 23 '15 at 5:44
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    There's quite a few 'winey/milky' proverbs here (in Italian) enoromagna.com/extra/proverbi.htm but no clue as to the age (or the proverbial meaning). A few of them include poison which made me think of Lady Macbeth and her drugged possets (posset being a drink of milk and wine). – Frank Feb 23 '15 at 7:30
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    @Frank - the Italian proverbs in your link which refer to milk and wine (they are in different regional dialects) suggest a positive combination of wine and milk. The following, for instance: "Late e vin fa un bel putin" (Veneto) means "milk and wine make a nice child" that is, help a child grow nice and strong. – user66974 Feb 23 '15 at 8:07
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    @Frank - pleasure. The meaning is actually close to the one suggested by 'Milk says to wine, Wellcome friend', the Italian proverbs are for sure centuries old...good suggestion!! – user66974 Feb 23 '15 at 8:24
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    @LittleEva - no, it just refers to the fact that they are two good healthy elements, and while it is true for milk, it is less so for wine (especially for a child). The fact is that milk and wine were easily available even to poor peope in the past. – user66974 Feb 24 '15 at 6:50
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Authorship

The byline to Jacula Prudentum reads "Selected by Mr. George Herbert, Late Orator of the University of Cambridge," and a note attached to an 1881 edition of the collected works of George Herbert says this:

It has been objected that there is no absolute proof that the proverbs [in Jacula Prudentum] were translated by Herbert (see “Notes & Queries,” second series, No. 57, p. 88), but these objections were ably set aside by Mr. Mayor in the same series, p. 30. It appears that Herbert’s works were held in high esteem and kept in MS. At Little Gidding, from whence Dr. John Mapletoft derived his two MS. Collections of proverbs, one of which professed to be a work of Herbert’s. There is, therefore little reason to doubt that he [Herbert] was the translator and editor of them.

As ermanen suggests in a comment above, if the English trail of the proverb ends at Herbert—either as author or translator from another language—it follows that Herbert is the source, in English at least. And indeed there is a related French proverb (discussed below), though it is not at all a literal counterpart of “Milk says to wine, Welcome friend,” but a possible source nonetheless. I haven’t been able to find any source in English that antedates Herbert.


Early attempts to categorize or characterize the saying

William Hazlitt includes the phrase “Milk says to wine, Welcome friend” in his relatively systematic and well-organized English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (1869), but in discussing Jacula Prudentum, Hazlitt is not especially charitable:

The volume of Outlandish Proverbs ascribed to George Herbert, whose authorship, I respectfully submit to be rather questionable, and printed in 1640, 8vo. is a meager and insipid business enough, and the pious compiler, if it be his, seems to have omitted purposely (which was so far natural and proper) all the gross sayings, however characteristic, which were current in or before his time, and even to have softened down such as were exceptionable in his eyes, and he did not resolve to exclude. The latter was scarcely a judicious compromise.

The Outlandish Proverbs exhibit one weakness which I have found to be common to all the collections : the confusion of proverbs with mere precepts or maxims destitute of proverbial significance and character.

W. Anderson O’Conor, “On Proverbs,” read on November 17, 1879, and included in Papers of the Manchester Literary Club (1880), sees this proverb and others in Herbert’s collection as representing a stage in the historical development of the proverb:

The passage from sayings of general application to those of a distinctly metaphorical character was natural. One or two examples taken from George Herbert’s Jacula Prudentum will illustrate them. “He stands no securely that never slips.” “The chicken is the country’s but the city eats it.” “After the house is finished leave it.” “Milk says to wine, Welcome friend.” “Diseases of the eye are best cured by the elbow.” “They that hold the greatest farms pay the least rent.” “Old camels carry young camels’ skins to the market.” The proverbial expression has grown here into a parable or dark saying, which is intended for solution rather than guidance, and which affords an exercise for ingenuity rather than an instruction to be practiced. Commonplace observations of life are knotted into enigmas, and wisdom is made to consist in a dexterous untying of them.

Though treating certain proverbs from Herbert’s collection as riddles may be defensible, doing so understates the extent to which they remain statements of folk wisdom. But what is the folk wisdom in “Milk says to wine, Welcome friend”?


Meaning of the proverb

My first thought was that milk was welcoming wine as a friend because both were agents of health in a human diet—rather as if one doctor were greeting a respected colleague. But that idea runs into some problems elsewhere in the land of proverbs.

The “milk says to wine” proverb also appears in [Robert] Southey’s Common Place Book, third series (1850). However, Southey also cites another saying from Herbert’s collection:

A morning sun, and a wine-bred child, and a Latin-bred woman seldom end well.

This saying is no less opaque than the “milk says to wine” proverb, especially with regard to the idea that a morning sun seldom ends well, unless it be that sunset inevitably comes to even the brightest morning (which hardly discredit the bright morning, in my opinion). The troubled future predicted for a "wine-bred child" at the very least suggests that the author of this proverb doesn’t consider milk and wine to be interchangeable in a child’s diet. The "Latin-bred woman," meanwhile, seems to refer to a woman who has received a sound and scholarly education—a potential source of friction in a society that prefers women to be intellectually submissive and unambitious. There is certainly no hint in the "wine-bred child" adage of a happy friendship between milk and wine.

Another perspective on the question arises in William Benham, Cassell’s Book of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words, revised edition (1914), which repeats the “milk says to wine” proverb and then adds a cross reference to the following saying from John Ray, Compleat Collection of English Proverbs:

If you would live for ever/You must wash milk from your liver.

Vin sur lait, c’est souhai;/Lait sur vin, c’est venin.

—Wine on milk is desirable; milk on wine is poison.—(Fr.)

Wein auf Bier rath ich dir, Bier auf Wein das lass acin.

—Wine upon beer I counsel thee; beer upon wine, let that be.—(Germ.)

And Godfrey Baseley, A Country Compendium [combined snippets] repeats the French saying about wine and milk and then follows it with a new and very brief saying about the two:

Wine on milk is desirable, milk on wine, poison.

Milk welcomes wine.

The Benham and Baseley sayings suggest that the crux of the “milk says to wine” proverb may be that if you drink first milk and then wine, your stomach will accept the newcomer calmly; but if you reverse the order, your stomach will rebel.

Ray’s “wash milk from your liver” proverb—though it may just be a very loose translation of the same French proverb that yields the “milk on wine, poison” adage, seems to go a step further and suggest that something—whether wine or water or some other fluid—is necessary to wash milk from your liver, to avoid bad results from the milk. Ray himself, however, seems to have viewed the “wash milk from your liver” saying with considerable skepticism. In his comment beneath that proverb (which he identifies as “Gallic) from the 1678 edition of his book, he remarks:

This is an idle old saw, for which I can see no reason but rather for the contrary.

  • Is it possible that "Latin-bred woman" means a woman from Italy or of Italian descent, rather than a woman with a classical education? – Silverfish Mar 5 '15 at 9:12
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A small complement on the meaning of a related proverb from extraneous sources. In this work in French I found the following(I will be providing a quick translation throughout):

Vin sur lait c'est santé, lait sur vin c'est venin.

Ce proverve signifie qu'on est guéri d'une maladie, lorsqu'on passe de l'usage du lait à celui du vin, et qu'on est malade, au contraire, lorqu'on cesse de boire du vin pour boire du lait. Les Espagnols disent: Dixo la lache al vino: bien seas venido, amigo. Le lait dit au vin, ami sois le bienvenu.

[tr: This proverb means we're cured from an illness, when we go from using milk to using wine, and that we're ill, conversely, when we stop drinking wine to drink milk. The Spanish say: ]

[ Dictionnaire étymologique, historique et anecdotique des proverbes et des locutions proverbiales de la langue française en rapport avec des proverbes et des locutions proverbiales des autres langues, Pierre Marie Quitard, 1842 ]

And further explanations here about that "wine on milk is desirable, milk on wine is poison":

[...]c'est-à-dire qu'on désire sortir de l'enfance où l'on est nourri que de lait, pour passer à l'âge où l'on boit du vin; et que lait sur vin est venin, parce qu'on ne remet au lait que ceux qui sont dangereusement malade de phtysie, et de défaillance. Le peuple prend souvent ce proverbe en un autre sens, comme s'il signifiait qu'on peut boire du vin après avoir mangé du lait, mais qu'il est dangereux et nuisible de manger du lait après avoir bu du vin. De là vient qu'en quelques endroit au lieu de c'est souhait on dit vin sur lait, c'est le droit, c'est-à-dire, reitum est, etc. mais ce n'est pas là le sens du proverbe. On dit aussi, que le vin est le lait des viellards. [...]

[tr: [...]meaning we want to come out of childhood where we're fed only milk, to enter the age where we drink wine; and [meaning] that lait sur vin est venin, because we return to drinking milk those who are dangerously ill of pthisie and failure. People often take this proverb to mean something else, as if it were saying we can have wine after having had milk, but that it is dangerous and detrimental to have milk after having had wine. Thereby comes the variation in some parts where we see that instead of c'est souhait it is said vin sur lait, c'est le droit, meaning, reitum est etc. but that is not the meaning of the proverb. We also say that wine is the milk of elders.[...] ]

[ Dictionnaire universel françois et latin contenant la signification tant des mots de l'une et l'autre langue avec leurs différents usages, que des termes propres de chaque Etat, de chaque profession, la déscription de toutes les choses naturelles et artificielles ; leurs figures, leurs espéces, leurs usages, leurs propriétés. [...] Dédié à Son Altesse Serenissime Monseigneur prince souverain de Dombes, chez Nicolas Legras, 1732 ]

That may or may not be right, or directly applicable to the English version, but variations of that are found in many similar works of the era (for instance 1750, and 1759 amongst others.) Maybe that can be of assistance to your research insofar as the meaning is concerned.

  • Thank you for these sources, Amphiteóth. Very interesting information. – Sven Yargs Mar 6 '15 at 19:09
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I've learned in my classes, come of the earliest forms of wine and alcohol were a type of fermented milk (they let the milk sit with some grains/wheat or something of the sort mixed into a kinda of soup that would normally be drunk/eaten like a soup but if you left is out the yeasts would cause the creation of alcohol that evolved into what we drink today thousands of years later) so it could be referring to the fact that when wine came around from grapes, alcoholic milk-soup stuff had be around for years so when the wine does come around, 'welcome friend' is said from the milk to the wine.

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Two points come to mind, one related, one spurious. In making tea, one should never pour milk into the tea or it will curdle, while pouring tea into milk will not. An issue of differences of acidity. Also I recall the old joke, if grass leads to harder drugs, does milk lead to beer?

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