I'm not sure which one of these apparently flatly contradictory proverbs I heard first but I have definitely heard both several times. One of them is:

There is honour among thieves.

Another is:

No honour among thieves.

Do they simply mean the opposite of each other, therefore, at least in my mind cancelling each other out, or is there a subtlety here that I am not picking up on? Are they related, perhaps sharing an origin and then somehow becoming inverted?

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    I may be completely wrong, but I always assumed that one of these was a proverb, and that the other had simply come as a result of the original being lost in translation, or forgotten. – Buns Glazing Oct 6 '11 at 15:12
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    Having just had a package stolen from my doorstep this afternoon, I feel confident saying there's none. – user13141 Oct 6 '11 at 16:16
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    I would say that they mean the opposite of each other, and reflect conflicting worldviews. – Karl Knechtel Oct 7 '11 at 7:42
  • Trust and mistrust as a professional courtesy, per Shakespeare! – user60903 Dec 30 '13 at 17:16

The classic proverb holds that, "There is honor among thieves.”1

The meaning, of course, is the concept of "professional courtesy," that even the disreputable and unethical do - particularly among themselves - adhere to various sorts of moral codes of conduct.2

As to the converse, "no honor among thieves," the meaning is self-explanatory. Curiously, the concept isn't limited to the English-speaking world, as evidenced by this Spanish proverb: Piensa el ladrón que todos son de su condición. (The thief thinks that all are of his condition.)3

1 Early nineteenth century. "The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations," Fifth Edition, edited by Elizabeth Knowles (Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2001). Page 612:11.
2 Also: "Honor is sometimes found among thieves." [Walter Scott]
3 http://www.elearnspanishlanguage.com/vocabulary/expressions/ex-proverbs.html

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  • Thank you for the edits, Martha. I'll remember that formatting. – The Raven Oct 6 '11 at 18:04
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    Identical to the Spanish proverb is the Danish tyv tror hver mand stjæler, lit. ‘thief thinks every man steals’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 30 '13 at 22:56
  • This reminds me of G.K. Chesterton's "Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become theirs, so that they may more perfectly respect it." – Matt Gutting Jun 8 '14 at 16:35

They are both well-known idioms that simply mean what they say and complement each other very well. There is honor among thieves conveys the idea that even people of lesser integrity can find trust in each other, if only for a short time, and at the same time mistrust each other, hence no honor among thieves.

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    "The squeeky wheel gets the grease" <> "Silence is golden" – Mitch Jul 17 '16 at 17:02

Origin of the proverb 'There is honour among thieves'

According to G.L. Apperson, The Wordworth Dictionary of Proverbs (1993), the notion that thieves share a bond of honorable conduct goes back at least as far as Cicero:

There is honour among thieves. {Cum igitur tanta vis iustitiae sit, ut ea etiam latronum opes firmet atque augeat.—Ciciero, Off[ices], II. xi. 39.} 1712: Motteux, Quixote, Pt. II ch. lx., The old proverb still holds good, Thieves are never rogues among themselves. 1723: Defoe, Colonel Jack, ch. i., Which is what other thieves make a point of honour of ; I mean that of being honest to one another.

Cyrus Edmunds, Cicero's Three Books of Offices (1863) translates the passage from Cicero as

If, therefore, the influence of justice is so forcible as to strengthen and enlarge the power of robbers, how great must we suppose it to be amid the laws and administration of a well-constituted government?

But earlier in the same paragraph, Cicero lays out an explanation of what he means by "the influence of justice":

For among those who thieve in company, if any one of them cheat or rob another he is turned out of the gang ; and the captain of the band himself, unless he should distribute the spoils impartially, would either be murdered or deserted by his fellows. Indeed robbers are even said to have their laws, which they obey and observe.

An interesting fairly early discussion of the English expression "honour among thieves," in "The Life of Patrick Madan, &c." (1782), makes much the same point that Cicero does:

From our having mentioned him [Madan] as the leader or commander of a gang, perhaps some of our readers may conclude, that he assumed to himself an absolute power over the rest; and that like OTHER commanders, he took to himself more than an equal allowance of the plunder they in conjunction made: but we can assure our readers, that this is not the unjust practice among thieves, who all of them agree, that, as the danger and labour in acquiring the spoils is the same to all, that the profits arising from them should be equitably divided; and in fact, for any one to cheat the rest in the division of the profits, is not easily practicable, as they have all equally access to the person who buys the goods they have stolen. It sometimes happens (which is a very extraordinary circumstance indeed, that one rascal will take, in the way of trade, advantage of another; but it as constantly follows, that he is as generally reprobated for the perfidy of his conduct, never losing sight of that adage, which says, there is "honour among thieves."

On the other hand, it was also proverbial in England, that, as Robert Ainsworth puts it in Thesaurus Linguae Latinae Compendiarius: Or, A Compendious Dictionary of the Latin Tongue (1752):

One thief accuseth another.

I suspect that the adages apply to different situations. That there is honor among thieves refers to honorable dealing based on business sense: if you try to cheat your business partners, they will never forget it, and your reputation in the business will be ruined. But if one thief is accused of being a thief, nothing is more natural than for that person to deflect attention to someone else, equally blameworthy, with whom he or she is not in league.

Origin of the counter-proverb 'There is no honour among thieves'

The earliest Google Books match for the expression of the counter-proverb, "There is no honour among thieves" is from the early 1800s. One transitional commentary appears in "Commodores Porter and Hillyer," from the Richmond [Virginia] Enquirer, reprinted in Niles' Weekly Register (October 18, 1817):

There are degrees of honor. It is a common saying, that "there is honor among thieves"—but this is not the sort of honor that honorable men would aim at: and com[modore] Porter, in calling Hillyar "one of the most honorable of British naval officers," expressed exactly the same idea as if he had said that H. was one of the least dishonorable of them; a negative compliment and evidently used in this way‚the designation "of British naval officers," indubitably marking its extent and character: for com. Porter's opinion of those is notorious to all men.

A History of the Gaming Houses, and Gamesters of the Metropolis (1824) includes this three-part top-of-page summary header on page 45:

No honour among thieves—Pauperising Legs—No redemption.

And farther down the page, this paragraph appears:

Well worthy of remark is the fact, that his two good friends who had worked so cordially in this foolish tavern-keeper's ruin at the beginning of the week, when they came near and found B-rry in so much trouble, they made good their retreat in whole skin, leaving him to battle his way out as well as he was able, and affording one more proof that the adage is untrue which says "There is honor among thieves." This occurred in 1811.

Finally, in George Smeeton, Doings in London; Or, Day and Night Scenes of the Frauds, Frolics, Manners (1828), we get the outright declaration of the counter-proverb:

“However wretched and depraved the beggars and inhabitants of these lodging-houses may be, they certainly were worse twenty years ago; for then there was no honour among thieves, the sheets belonging to the lodging-houses having the names of the owners painted on them in large characters of red lead, in order to prevent their being bought, if stolen, thus:


A twist on the old saying is recorded in John Badcock, Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton, and the Varieties of Life (1823):

The saying, 'There is honour among thieves, but none among gamblers,' is very well antithetically spoken, but not true in fact : none are more disjointed than are those gangs, inter se, and upon this chord should our police regulations ever thrum.


The notion, at least, behind the expression "there is honor among thieves" is ancient, and it is expressed (inexactly) by English writers as far back as Daniel Defoe in 1723. A pamphlet published in 1782 describes "there is honour among thieves" as an "adage," so the familiar wording must be considerably older than that date.

The counter-proverb, "there is no honour among thieves" is somewhat younger—at least in Google Books search results, with an exact occurrence in 1828 after earlier instances in which writers denied the assertion that honor did exist among thieves.

The original proverb probably arose out of an awareness of the widespread and rigorously observed code of silence among thieves with regard to incriminating a fellow thief, or from a vague knowledge of the equitable sharing of spoils that was common among confederates in a theft; and the counter-proverb, from an insistence that any such code usually fell apart in extremis and a sense that thieves really couldn't trust their fellow thieves not to steal from them if they could.

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  • @Downvoter, I read this answer twice and I don't see any reason this answer deserves a downvote. The downvote arrow clearly says "This answer is not useful." How is this answer not useful? Care to explain, please? – user140086 Jul 17 '16 at 16:05
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    @Rathony No honour among downvoters. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 17 '16 at 16:48
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    @EdwinAshworth All upvoters are alike. Each downvoter is a scoundrel in their own way. – Mitch Jul 17 '16 at 17:04
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    @Rathony, Edwin, Mitch: From Henry Romilly, Public Responsibility and Vote by Ballot, second edition (1867): "'Will any one tell me what I am to do to satisfy my conscience at the same time that I satisfy Public Opinion?' No; nobody will tell him, or can tell him; nor will anybody ever find in his vote the groundwork for a correct moral judgment of his conduct. It is mere folly to interfere between him and his conscience." – Sven Yargs Jul 17 '16 at 17:20
  • @Sven: From W C Fields: 'I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.” – Edwin Ashworth Jul 17 '16 at 20:31

"There is honor among thieves.” is to say that there is a code of conduct ranging from a mere professional courtesy, to a complete set of in-house rules in a group, band, or guild of thieves working in cooperation. "There is no honor among thieves.” is used to express when situations when such systems break down, or the greedy nature of thieves interferes with their code of ethics... It is also used to express that the breaking down of such a code of ethics seems inevitable.

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I love the closely related quote from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:

The treacherous are ever distrustful.

Which carries a similar meaning as your second form No honour among thieves. This derived form (by me) makes sense, too:

Even a traitor can trust.

Which would coincide with There is honour among thieves.

I think both forms make sense and do not actually contradict each other. They are not opposites. One would not bother to state that there is honour among thieves if it weren’t a rare and remarkable commodity.

The (contradicting) opposite would be:

Honourable people steal a lot.

Trusting people will always betray you.


All thieves are honourable.

The treacherous are trusting people.

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