Consider this quote from Mark Twain:

“Familiarity breeds contempt - and children.”

Does it mean having children is a bad thing?

Could you explain what the children imply here?

  • 23
    It's zeugma..."a figure of speech in which a word applies to two others in different senses" Jan 17, 2021 at 14:21
  • 13
    It's an old joke on an even older idiom.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 17, 2021 at 14:40
  • 2
    Interesting. The first part betrays a fair share of misanthropy. My experience is rather the other way around: You understand people better if you know them. Jan 18, 2021 at 11:03
  • 13
    When a couple is together a lot, they may fight and they may make babies. I can draw pictures. Jan 18, 2021 at 21:33
  • 10
    @Cascabel Saw a cute zeugma in a recent NY Times headline: "Electric Eels Hunt in Packs, Shocking Prey and Scientists".
    – Barmar
    Jan 19, 2021 at 16:05

6 Answers 6


Two thoughts are run together:

Familiarity breeds contempt {knowing people very well lets you see their faults}

Familiarity breeds children {physical familiarity between the sexes leads to children}


Familiarity breeds contempt and children.

A similar example of this particular way of playing with words (called Zeugma) is:

“You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.”

  • 2
    Another thing about that breeding of contempt is that you might not give the person you're familiar with the respect due to their position (high fiving the general friend of yours as a private in front of his subordinates and similar)
    – mishan
    Jan 18, 2021 at 16:08
  • He crossed the name off of his list, and the street.
    – Flater
    Jan 20, 2021 at 9:40

For those whose first language is not English

What other answers have not explained so far is that the phrase "familiarity breeds contempt" is a very well known proverb in English that came about long before Mark Twain added the second part.

De Deo Socratis (On the God of Socrates)... This treatise ... contains a passage comparing gods and kings which is the first recorded occurrence of the proverb "familiarity breeds contempt": parit enim conversatio contemptum, raritas conciliat admirationem (familiarity breeds contempt, rarity brings admiration) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apuleius#Other_works

Of course, this could apply to many things, e.g. iron is common and people discard it easily whereas gold is rare and considered very valuable. Similarly it can be considered to apply to some relationships. Consider the high divorce rate in many countries.

Mark Twain simply used humour to add to the above. Familiarity also breeds children. It is a joke and is not intended for serious contemplation, nor does it have any great philosophical significance.

Consider it as follows

Mark Twain: "On the one hand, some people say that familiarity breeds contempt. However, on the other hand, in my experience, familiarity breeds children!" (everyone laughs)


The familiarity implies that too familiar can have the side-effect of children. It's meant to be humorous. How you feel about having children is up to you.

  • 1
    I don't envy children born into a family whose members don't have respect for each other. Jan 18, 2021 at 11:05
  • 3
    No, it doesn't mean that at all. Jan 19, 2021 at 15:30

There are three things about this aphorism that I think need to be understood:

It subverts a simpler well-known saying

"Familiarity breeds contempt" has appeared in writing going back to at least the 1300s when it appears in Chaucer's Tale of Melibee. The simple meaning of this phrase is that the more one becomes familiar with something or someone, the more one dislikes it – to the point of contempt.

It plays with the figurative use of "breeds"

In "familiarity breeds contempt", "breeds" is a figurative way of saying that one gives rise to the other, using the imagery of procreation that the literal meaning of "breeding" refers to.

This doesn't work the same way with Twain's addition. Simply saying "familiarity breeds children" would be confusing to any reader. Unlike "familiarity" and "contempt", "children" isn't a state of mind that can be connected to another by some transition.

Instead Twain relies on the reader recognising the connection between the literal meaning of "breeds" and "children", because to breed necessarily procreates children. The reader has to deduce for themselves how the concept "familiarity breeds children" makes sense – and it does, because interpersonal familiarity inherently precedes two people having a child together – to understand his point. But it doesn't have to be a sensible way to express that idea on its own because the point is to show that you can use the same construction as the well-known saying to convey a very different idea by interpreting the words it reuses differently.

It sets up an ironic contrast

The humour in the phrase doesn't just come from expressing two different ideas using the same words, but that they're seemingly contradictory. Having children together is usually associated with affection, not contempt. But there is a truth in this contrast, because relationships do often sour over time, and having children together inherently creates a prolonged relationship of some sort.

So the phrase is effective because it very succinctly plays with a familiar idea and invites the reader to make an observation that is interesting in its own right.


Nobody has addressed the question yet.

In the time of Samuel Clemens, in order for people to mate and breed with a partner, a degree of familiarity, or "intimacy" was required.

Children are often the result of such intimacy. The act of producing offspring can be one of the meanings of "breeding".


I think you are confused because you see familiarity as containing the root word "family".



"Word Choice: Familiar vs. Familial" It explains that "Familiar" means "Known from Experience", whereas "Familial" is "Relating to Family", as mother, father, brother, sister, cousins, aunt, uncle, etc.

"Familiarity breeds contempt" applies to the circumstance that becoming too emotionally close (familiar) to someone can breed bad feelings for each other.

As for the Mark Twain quote, “Familiarity breeds contempt - and children.” is a play on words, a joke; treating "familiarity", as if it was referring to family, and the word `breed' as 'breeding children', rather than feelings. It could be seen as a friendly dig on children, or it could be seen as just a funny play on words.

  • This answer doesn't address the key element of the question, which is the pun on physical intimacy giving rise to children. Jan 23, 2021 at 12:55

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