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I came across this proverb recently

Ropes that are too long become snakes.

This is a direct translation from the Corsican of I funi longhi diventani sarpi. However, I could neither understand its meaning nor the context in which this proverb could be used. Does the translation make sense in metaphorical English? Is there a more-commmonly used English expression that has the same meaning?

Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because Corsican proverbs are not part of the English language. You could try French.SE, perhaps? Feb 28, 2016 at 23:23
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    Tachyon, I've edited your question to avoid the depredations of the CPVPV, who tend to close things like this. Make sure that I haven't misrepresented you. (You may always reject the edit.) It would help if you would give the context in which you read the proverb.
    – deadrat
    Feb 29, 2016 at 0:05
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    @TimLymington It's about if there is a corresponding English proverb, right? Lately that certainly has been considered on topic, no matter what the language it starts off from.
    – Mitch
    Feb 29, 2016 at 0:21
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    Things that are excessive relative to their function/need, become evil/cause harm. Don't bite off more than you can chew (or you will choke). Keep the world (and yourself) on a (relatively) tight leash. Prune excessive out-growth.
    – A.S.
    Feb 29, 2016 at 1:07
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    @TimLymington Why would French.SE do any good? It’s not in French, you know: it’s in Corse, which is neither a langue d’oïl like French nor a langue d’oc like Provençal, but rather is an Italo-Dalmatian Romance language more closely allied to what you would now call Italian.
    – tchrist
    Feb 29, 2016 at 1:52

3 Answers 3

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This is only conjecture; I believe this statement to have a sort of "tiered" meaning.

First, we need to imagine and understand that a long enough rope will be more difficult to work with. Remember that Corsica is an island and hosts an avid fishing culture. Long ropes are easy to become tangled in on a fishing boat.

Once you understand the danger of a long rope, one might consider them 'as snakes' simply because both are dangerous and winding. If this is the case, I think the phrase is closer to the English sentiment: "Don't bite off more than you can chew."

In other words, trying to always do and work with more and more isn't always best. Bigger isn't always better. Only use what you need and can operate effectively or you may hurt yourself.

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    I liked all three answers (and upvoted them). However, this is the one I liked the most.
    – Tachyon
    Feb 29, 2016 at 18:14
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I'm making an assumption about the meaning of the Corsican proverb, and that it is close in meaning to the English saying

Give [a man] enough rope and he'll hang himself.

The Wiktionary interpretation (also given, but less pithily, by Collins) is relevant here:

If one gives someone enough freedom of action, they may destroy themselves by foolish actions.

The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs gives the narrower definition

If you give someone that you suspect of bad behavior the freedom to behave badly, eventually he or she will be caught and punished.

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  • There is an essential difference that the OP refers to harm caused to others (you specifically) while your finding refers to self-harm/self-incrimination.
    – A.S.
    Feb 29, 2016 at 1:15
  • No, they (OP) don't. This is not necessarily the case as interpreted by looking at the question as given. 'Kicking the bucket' in the idiomatic sense does not demand volition. As I said, I'm guessing at the meaning (and I rather like Sven's response); the question needs the meaning of the Corsican metaphor to be translated: a word-for-word translation of the metaphor is inadequate. Feb 29, 2016 at 11:14
  • Sven's interpretation is wrong as it ignores "too long". In his interpretation, the meaning is "don't have ropes of any length". It's unlikely that the OP is self-referential (if you don't keep yourself proper "length", you'll become a snake) since snake = dangerous, deadly creature that can bite you to death - not simply an unpleasant creature. But even then, the harm you could cause would be to others mostly. I don't see relevance of volition here and see the meaning as "excess will become harmful" (in general) and "don't give too much freedom to your helpers/allies/partners" in particular
    – A.S.
    Feb 29, 2016 at 18:50
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Another possible interpretation of the ropes-to-snakes proverb is that even a minor falsehood or deception can take on a life of its own and become increasingly difficult to manage as its inventor struggles to uphold its legitimacy. An English proverb expressing approximately this idea appears in a famous couplet from Walter Scott's Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808):

Oh what a tangled web we weave

When first we practise to deceive!

Senator Samuel J. Ervin of North Carolina cemented his reputation as a homespun philosopher during the 1973 hearings investigating the Watergate scandal by citing (on more than one occasion, I believe) this cautionary quotation on the pitfalls of dishonesty.

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