There's an Italian expression, 'sputare nel piatto dove si mangia', that literally means 'to spit on the plate where you eat', but really means:

to have an attitude of contempt, of strong criticism towards the activity, the situation and the like, from which one draws the means for one's livelihood

(per Google Translate's translation of https://dizionario.internazionale.it/parola/sputare-nel-piatto-in-cui-si-mangia).

What's the English equivalent?

The best match I could think of is 'bite the hand that feeds you', which is also what https://www.wordreference.com/iten/sputare%20nel%20piatto%20dove%20si%20mangia gives; but it doesn't really capture the exact concept - or does it?

'Sputare nel piatto dove si mangia' makes me think of someone who fails to appreciate / complains about some actually good situation they are experiencing.
Like someone with a very rewarding, well-paid job, who only seems to see the (few) negatives and keeps moaning about those.

On the other hand, 'bite the hand that feeds you' makes me think of an interaction between people, not just an impersonal lack of appreciation.
Like someone who actively betrays their benefactor, or the above person not just complaining in general, but doing something bad against their employer.

Am I wrong?
I.e. can 'bite...' be used for someone who is just generically unappreciative of their condition without specifically harming anyone?

  • 2
    Proverbs and sayings often reflect specific cultural aspects that are typical of their original country. I don’t think there is an English saying that perfectly fits the italian one in this case.
    – user 66974
    Commented May 24, 2023 at 9:23
  • @user66974 : thanks; I had a sneaky suspicion that this could be the case, but wanted to check with you experts. Many Italian expressions do have very close English equivalents, mutatis mutandis. E.g. "il bue che dice cornuto all'asino" ~ "the pot calling the kettle black". But clearly not all of them :/ Quite interesting, IMO. Commented May 24, 2023 at 16:44
  • 1
    Does this answer your question? In my native language, we have this obscene saying - don't take a dump in the barrel of honey Commented May 31, 2023 at 10:01
  • Sometimes, you can just translate 'em and they work: Don't spit on the plate you eat from. I would avoid the one with shit as that changes the register completely. Translation is not about equivalence. It's above equivalent meaning.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 13:48
  • What register? These days talking heads and pundits regularly use much worse profanity on air and in tweets. @Lambie That "formal register" is gone, and those who cling to it sound sound like they are obfuscating or just flat-out lying. Instead of criticizing, post an answer....an op-ed of sorts. Commented May 31, 2023 at 17:09

3 Answers 3


Wolfgang Mieder, A Dictionary of American Proverbs (1992) offers the following entry for "It's an ill bird that fowls [sic] its own nest":

It's an ill bird that fowls its own nest. Var[iation]s: (a) It's a mean bird that dirties its own nest. (b) It's a poor bird that will dirty its own nest. Rec[orded] dist[ribution]: U.S., Can[ada]. 1st cit[ation] ca.1250 Owl and nightingale; US1666 Alsop, Character of Province of Maryland, ed. Mereness (1902). ...

It seems highly likely that "fowls" in this excerpt is a typo for fouls. The circa 1250 (or earlier) instance from "The Owl and the Nightingale" reads as follows:

Thar-bi men segget a vorbsine, / 'Dahet nabbe that ilke best, / That fuleth his owe nest.'

The proverb is certainly very old in English. Morris Tilley A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1950) has this entry:

It is a foul bird that defileth his own nest

1509 A. Barclay Ship [of] Fools, I 173: It is a lewde byrde that fyleth his owne nest. a1529 Skelton Ag[ain]st Garnesche I. 197: Wks., I 125: That byrd ys nat honest That fylythe hys owne nest. 1546 Hey[wood] II v, s. H3: (fyleth). 1552 Tav. f. 58v: It is a foule thyng for a man to slaunder the treasure or thinges of his owne house. We haue a verye prety prouerbe in Englysh which we vse in the same sense. It is an euil byrde that defyleth her owne nest. 1586 Withals, s. A4: It is an ill Birde that berayes her owne nest. 1590 Lodge Rosalynde, p.37. p. 37: Is it not a foule bird defiles the owne nest? ...

Lodge's Rosalynde provided the plot for Shakespeare's As You Like It (1599)—and as Tilley notes near the bottom of the entry excerpted above, Shakespeare has Celia allude to the proverb in Act IV scene 1, 206, when she chides Rosalind (in her guise as Ganymede) for saying too many harsh things about women:

Celia. You have simply misus'd our sex in your love-prate : We must have your doublet and hose pluck'd over your head, and show the world what the bird hath done to her own nest.

Lewis Chambaud, The Idioms of the French and English Languages (1793) offers two "English adapted" versions of the French proverb "Chaque oiseau trouve son nid beau" ["Every bird finds its nest beautiful"]:

It is a bad bird that fouls his own nest.

She's a villainous bird that befouls her own nest.

In footnote attached to the second English phrase he cites, Chambaud writes:

Les Anglois appliquent ce proverbe par manière de reproche à ceux qui parlent mal de leur pays, ou de leurs proches. ["The English apply this proverb by way of reproach to those who speak badly of their country, or of their relatives."]

The English version of the French in this case is essentially the negative of it.

Interestingly, Wolfgang Mieder & Fred Shapiro, The [Yale] Dictionary of Modern Proverbs cites two modern versions of the ill bird proverb:

Don't shit on your own doorstep.

1967 Eric Partridge, Dicitonary of Slang and Unconventional English, 6th ed. (New York: Macmillan) 1356: The proverb is glossed with an allusion to an older proverb: "You don't 'foul your own nest.'" ...


Don't shit where you eat. [Citations, starting with Saul Bellow, Adventures of Augie March (1953) omitted.]

But given the choice, I think I'd go with the older version, perhaps as rendered in Thomas Hoccleve's The Letter of Cupid (1402) and quoted in Bartlett Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases from English Writings Mainly Before 1500 (1968):

An olde proverbe seyde ys in englyssh: men seyn "that brid or foule ys dishonest, What that he be and holden ful chirlyssh, That useth to defoule his oune neste."

  • There's an earlier question about "don't shit where you eat" which provides more context on that phrase.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 10:35
  • 1
    I think the register with shit is off and so is the time periods in your examples.
    – Lambie
    Commented May 31, 2023 at 13:50
  • @Sven Yargs : thank you for this very erudite and thorough explanation! There are clearly very close concepts expressed in proverbs and sayings from different countries. The 'bird that fowls its own nest' seems very close indeed. Still, I find myself agreeing with user 66974 in that there may not be a 'full' equivalent in English. None of the proposed expressions seems to be free from some action that causes direct harm ('bite', 'foul' 'sh...' etc). But it's not up to me to decide. I think it's been very useful to have had this debate and collected all this information. Thanks again! Commented May 31, 2023 at 17:58

Don't shit where you eat

American Expression

Urban Dictionary

On ef the few times we can quote UD as an authoritative source; after all, vulgarity is their métier and stock in trade.

I believe there was a Sicilian expression.


The idiom is in essence Universal but takes different forms around the world.

I personally would have opted from the literal translation for the same common Dont bite the hand that feeds you which was espoused well by Mark Twain as.

If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.

There are thousands of different proverbs that are all explaining ingratitude is rife but to be avoided or despised.

Thus a biter and twisted transliteration of the Italian concept is

A means of saying that:-

After having benefited from someone's favors, some may, soon despise them with evident, selfish ingratitude.

Perhaps best put by

Most people return small favors, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones - with ingratitude.


And thus in its short format

1 should not be ungrateful for what 1 has received

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