Although considered an ancient proverb, the expression like father, like son is extremely common in writing and speech today. Let’s explore its meaning, origin, and similar sayings.
What Does Like Father Like Son Mean?
Unlike other common phrases explored at The Word Counter, it’s fairly easy to determine the meaning of the expression like father, like son just by looking at the words that comprise it. While its grammatical structure may not make too much sense (more in a minute), the language is simplistic and straightforward. You know the words like, father, and son—although you do need to land on which definition of like the phrase uses—and so it isn’t too much of a stretch to arrive at its meaning:
In the same manner from generation (father) to generation (son)
In other words, this expression is used to describe a son who takes after his father in some way, either in terms of appearance or behavior. (As you can now see, the phrase uses the definition of like meaning “the same or nearly the same,” or “having similar characteristics.”)
Children usually look and act similarly to their parents. This is in part due to genetics and the specific traits, such as hair color and eye color, that we inherit from our parents. But it’s also due to our upbringing. (You may be familiar with the nature vs. nurture debate around human development, with nature referring to a person’s genes and nurture meaning our environment.) Growing up, we observe our parents: We watch everything they do and listen to everything they say, including their specific rules for us and their advice for navigating this thing called life. In doing so, we learn from them how to exist in the world, and their beliefs and behaviors shape our beliefs and behaviors. As adults, we tend to speak and act like our parents, or the parental figures who raised us from a young age, thus the phrase like father, like son, as well as the similar expression like mother, like daughter, which is also commonly used today.
Of course, sons can be like their mothers and daughters like their fathers, in both appearance and behavior. While societies may have, and perpetuate in a variety of ways, a cultural expectation that sons will be more like their fathers and daughters more like their mothers, hence the expressions, there’s no scientific basis for this.
Perhaps most often, the expressions like father, like son and like mother, like daughter are used to discuss behaviors and actions, verus physical appearance. Typically, they’re used to point out notable similarities in this regard. For example, maybe both father and son really love cooking, or both mother and daughter are really talented actors. Or, maybe both father and son have a really short temper, or both mother and daughter are unnecessarily anxious in given settings. This is to say that the expression can be flattering or disparaging.
Here are some example sentences using the expression like father, like son:
- My piano teacher also taught my dad years ago. During my lessons, she’s always saying “like father, like son,” and telling me that I have the same natural skill with the instrument as him.
- I recognize that I can be stubborn. I know this is what my mom means sometimes when she shakes her head at me saying “like father, like son.”
- Like father, like son: I’m 6’4”, and I bet my eldest will grow up to be at least 6’ tall.
- My great-great grandfather was a politician, as was my grandfather and my father. You know what they say: Like father, like son.
The Origins of the Phrase
A version of like mother, like daughter appears in the Bible, specifically in Ezekiel 16:44: “Behold, every one that useth proverbs shall use this proverb against thee, saying, As is the mother, so is the daughter.”
However, two Latin sayings are often cited as the origins of the version like father, like son: Qualis pater, talis filius, which translates to “as the father, so the son,” and patris est filius, translating to “he is his father’s son.”
Although we know of these earlier examples, it isn’t expected that the expression like father, like son found widespread use in English until much later. Some sources point to the 1300s. We know for sure it was included in the collection of popular proverbs Bibliotheca Scholastica Instructissima, gathered by Thomas Draxe and published in 1616.
What Are Idioms and Proverbs?
Like father, like son is considered an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
As we’ve discussed, if you know the definition of like as “in the same manner,” you’ll likely be able to discern the meaning of this expression. However, it is interesting to note that idioms, and in particular proverbs that are also idioms, don’t necessarily conform to traditional grammar rules—another reason their meanings can be so difficult to decipher when looked at literally, or at face value.
This is the case with like father, like son. A more grammatically accurate version of the proverb, which would help you more easily understand it, might be: What a father is like, his son is also like. But that’s certainly not quite as catchy, is it?! Without using like, the phrase might be: A son is as is father is, for another example. In essence, the meaning of the expression: A son is like his father. Without taking too deep a dive, the proverb like father, like son doesn’t follow the standard English sentence formula of a noun or noun phrase followed by a verb or verb phrase. (You can find a much more detailed analysis of proverbs and grammar in the Encyclopaedia of the Linguistic Sciences; in addition to like father, like son, writer Neal Norrick discusses once bitten, twice shy.)
A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts wisdom and 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.
If you’re looking for another way to say that a child is like their parent, there are a few other expressions you can use.
- A chip off the old block
- The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
- Follow in (one’s) footsteps; here, in place of one’s, you can say their or their mother’s, their father’s, or even their aunt’s or their uncles, etc.
Like father, like son is considered both a proverbial and idiomatic expression. It is used to indicate a resemblance between a father and his son, either in terms of physical appearance or in terms of behavior, such as likes or dislikes, personality traits, hobbies, talents, and so on. You can also use the expression like mother, like daughter, to indicate a daughter taking after her mother.