The famous proverb, one swallow does not make a summer means:

  • A single fortunate event doesn’t mean that what follows will also be good. (ODO)

the origin, according to the Phrase Finder:

  • This old proverb is listed in several early glossaries, notably Richard Taverner's transcription of the [Latin] proverbs of Erasmus - Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, 1539:

    • It is not one swalowe that bryngeth in somer. It is not one good qualitie that maketh a man good.

The same proverb is very popular also in France and Italy where the version is "a swallow does not make a spring" and its origin is said to be from Aristotle “Etica Nicomachea” where the philosopher says:

  • "One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy"

According to NGRAM also the "spring" version appears to be used, but most references cite only the "summer" one.

Questions:

  • Which is the more common version in AmE and BrE.

  • Why did the "summer" version become common usage despite the common notion that swallows make their appearence during spring, not during summer.

  • Was the Middle English term "somer" a broader concept in terms of seasons compared to the modern one? If so, is this the origin of the "misunderstanding" of the proverb" ?

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It's a Greek Saying

It appears several sources support the claim that the proverb, one swallow does not a summer make, has its origin in Ancient Greece.

From Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE) uses the term ἕαρ which is Greek for ‘springtide’ and ‘spring’: "One swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a man blessed and happy"

An alternative version: “Moreover, to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.”

In opposition, the website BookBrowse argues that the poetic proverb probably pre-dates Aristotle:

Many fables have been written based on the proverb including one attributed to Aesop. However, consider that Aesop lived around 600 BC (or at least the legend that became Aesop appears to have originated around this time as there's some uncertainty whether Aesop actually existed), it would seem that the proverb dates back at least a few hundred years before Aristotle.

In Aesop's fable, a young man sees a swallow on a warm winter day. Thinking that winter is over, he sells off his woolen coat, and with the money he's made he goes to the bar and drinks. Unfortunately, in the days that follow the temperature drops and the young man, shivering in the cold, realizes that one swallow does not make a summer.

In its article The Young Man and the Swallow, Wikipedia tells us that the proverb was already well-known in England before Aesop's fable, translated in English, appeared in 1600.

Although the fable was translated into Latin prose during the 15th century, it was not included in European vernacular collections of the time but begins to be recorded in the 16th. Poetic versions are included in French in Les Fables d'Esope Phrygien, mises en Ryme Francoise (1542)5 and in Latin by Hieronymus Osius (1564). In England the fable does not appear in collections before the 17th century, but the proverb, in the form 'One swallow does not make a summer', is recorded a century earlier. Erasmus includes its Latin version in his Adagia and the proverb is common throughout Europe.

1539 R. TAVERNER tr. Erasmus' Adages 25 “It is not one swalowe that bryngeth in somer. It is not one good qualitie that maketh a man good”

1546 The Proverbs of John Heywood. The following snippet on p.121 is from an 1874 edition.

One swallow maketh not summer.

One swallowe prouveth not that summer is neare.

Why do British (and Spanish) swallows migrate later?

If the French and Italian proverbs une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps and una rondine non fa primavera correctly identify spring as being the migratory period, since when do swallows migrate to the British Isles in June and July?

Well, it could be that the term spring, the season following winter, was still in its infancy when the proverb came into vogue. In Old English, the season was known as lencten "springtime, spring," while summer is a much older word. Etymonline, the online etymology dictionary par excellence, confirms:

spring season following winter, the vernal season, c. 1400, earlier springing time (late 14c.), which replaced Lent, the Old English word. […]The notion is of the "spring of the year," when plants begin to rise (as in spring of the leaf, 1520s), from the noun in its old sense of "action or time of rising or springing into existence." It was used of sunrise, the waxing of the moon, rising tides, etc.; compare 14c. spring of dai "sunrise," spring of mone "moonrise," late Old English spring "carbuncle, pustule."

Whereas summer is derived from Old English sumor and from Proto-Germanic *sumur- (cognates: Old Saxon, Old Norse, Old High German sumar, Old Frisian sumur, Middle Dutch somer, Dutch zomer, German Sommer)

I'm no poetess, but both swallow and summer begin with the letter S, and both words have two syllables, and both contain double consonants, so perhaps the two scan better in unison; especially in its 16th century variant. The “original” phrase looks more symmetrical,

one swallow maketh not summer

compared to

one swallow maketh not Lent
(or)
one swallow maketh not spring

P.S. Spanish swallows also appear to travel later compared to their French and Italian cousins:
- una golondrina no hace verano (wiktionary)

P.P.S And a special thanks to @Peter Shor who pointed out that Aristotle's original citation had the term spring.

  • One note: it appears that Aristotle actually said "spring". – Peter Shor Apr 22 '16 at 20:31
  • @PeterShor wiki got it wrong, well spotted! I merely copy and pasted the citation. But your link directs me to Aesop's fable, not to Aristotle – Mari-Lou A Apr 22 '16 at 20:34
  • 1
    It also gives Aristotle's quote in Ancient Greek: μία χελίδὼν ἕαρ ού ποίεῖ. Google translate confirms that ἕαρ means spring. – Peter Shor Apr 22 '16 at 20:37
  • Very nice answer. Any idea on why also the "spring" version appears to be a common one in English according to Google Books? – user66974 Apr 24 '16 at 6:19
  • @Josh61 without a single doubt, the overwhelming majority of English citations are that of the "summer" one. In comparison, the citations containing spring are far fewer, and many of them actually cite Aristotle's quotation and mention the fact that the French/Italian proverbs cite "spring". Of course, I didn't go through each and every single instance but that was my general impression – Mari-Lou A Apr 24 '16 at 7:05

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