What Does Familiarity Breeds Contempt Mean?

Are you, ahem, familiar with the expression familiarity breeds contempt? Don’t worry if you’re not. This article will share the definition of familiarity breeds contempt, as well as its origin, and even explore if the wisdom expressed by the proverb is always true. Read on to get more acquainted with this phrase.

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What Does Familiarity Breeds Contempt Mean?

To understand this expression, all you need to do is look to the words it contains. 

Familiarity: a state of close relationship; being in close acquaintance with someone or something

Contempt: the act of despising; having a lack of respect for someone or something, or to look down on them or it with aversion (to even better understand the word, consult a thesaurus for synonyms for contempt)

Taken altogether then, you can see that this proverbial saying means that the closer one gets to a person or thing, the more they despise them or it. This is said to be the case because the more you get to know someone or learn about something, the more you discover their or its bad qualities as well as good. And it’s these shortcomings or flaws that then cause you to begin to dislike them or it, or lose respect for that person or thing. 

The phrase is often used in reference to relationships, including close friendships and particularly about romantic relationships. But as shared above, it can also apply to things. For example, if someone has the same job or practices the same hobby for a long time, they may not only get bored with it but grow to hate it.

Here are some example sentences using the expression familiarity breeds contempt:

  • When I first started my job with the magazine, I loved it, and I got along great with my boss. It was like a dream come true. But now that I’ve been there a year, it’s a completely different story. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt: I’ve discovered all the negative office dynamics and dysfunctional practices, and I’ve seen all of my boss’s terrible qualities. I can’t be positive when I come to work anymore.
  • At first, I adored everything about my husband, even the way he chews and his snores, and we had a wonderful life. Now that we’ve been together 10 years, I can’t stand all the noises he makes. He’s so loud, and they never end. I guess it’s true when they say familiarity breeds contempt. 
  • Familiarity breeds contempt: When we were younger, I never realized that my best friend was selfish and didn’t speak kindly to others. But now that we’re older and I’ve known him a while, I have really begun to notice these and other negative traits, and I’ve lost respect and admiration for him. 
  • My girlfriend and I had just started living together when the pandemic hit. Thanks to COVID and us working together at home and being around each other nonstop, I now really understand the saying familiarity breeds contempt. 

The Origins of the Expression

The first written record of this phrase appears to date to the late 1300s and the Tale of Melibee in The Canterbury Tales by the poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer; it’s the longest of the tales. Chaucer is considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages—he’s even been called the “father of English literature/poetry.” (You’ll also find the proverb patience is a virtue in The Canterbury Tales.)  

In Tale of Melibee, Chaucer writes: “Men seyn that ‘over-greet hoomlynesse engendreth dispreisynge.’” Translated from Middle English to Modern English, the line reads: “Men say that ‘over-great familiarity engenders contempt.’” Although not the exact expression we know and use today, it’s very close.

Although that’s likely the first written record, language historians guess the expression to be much older. It’s thought to date as far back as ancient times and the Roman writer Publilius Syrus and then later be attributed to Pope Innocent III. Other examples of familiarity breeds contempt in writing include a 1548 translation of Erasmus’s sayings (“familiaritye bringeth contempt”). This is sometimes attributed as the first record of the expression in English, but we can see that Chaucer clearly recorded it first.

Much later, in 1928, the writer D.H. Lawrence included the expression in his work Phoenix II, writing: “We say … Familiarity breeds contempt … It has taken some races of men thousands of years to become contemptuous of the moon.”

What Is a Proverb?

The expression familiarity breeds contempt is a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Discover many more proverbs and other common sayings here.

So, Does Familiarity Breed Contempt… Really?

As just mentioned, a proverb is said to express a universal truth. But does familiarity always cause contempt? Not necessarily, say psychologists, who often help couples in romantic relationships find harmony and happiness. They note that in fact familiarity can bring couples closer and breed stronger intimacy and love. In one article, a psychologist encourages thinking of the problem not as familiarity itself but rather what a person is becoming accustomed to and familiar with. If, for example, there are negative patterns in a relationship, those can absolutely be a case of familiarity breeds contempt. But on the flip side, consistent positive communication and loving gestures over a long period of time are a good example in which familiarity is unlikely to cause one partner to despise the other. So while in relationships specifically the expression may indeed ring true, it certainly doesn’t have to be the case. Likewise, while familiarity with a job or hobby could cause one to dislike it, or at least at times feel bored with it, it could actually sometimes make a person love it more.

Summary

Familiarity breeds contempt is an old adage that means the better you know someone or something, the more likely you are to find fault with that person or thing and feel hostility or hatred towards them or it, or to begin devaluing them or it. Although proverbs are common sayings that impart advice and share universal truths, and the wisdom offered about human nature by this particular proverb may often be true, it won’t necessarily always be the case that familiarity causes contempt.