The old saw is dull

The proverb Familiarity breeds contempt is based on the same kind of error as the obsolete scientific belief that meat spontaneously breeds maggots, or that cheese spawns worms.

I believe the proverb lost its bearings because of a historical change in the way we use the word familiarity. It originally referred to a kind of behavior rather than to a relationship between people.

Familiar is related to family, so familiarity originally referred to the way one feels and behaves toward members of one’s own household (and of other closed, intimate groups that act like households). With others, though, one should be reserved, courteous, or businesslike, friendly in some cases, but not to the point of treating them as family. Such familiarity, saith the proverb, shall be punished with contempt.

So “familiar” behavior is inappropriately casual or presumptuous where formality or deference is supposedly called for. Consider President Bush’s habit of tagging his staff and associates with absurd nicknames he had invented. No one, of course, was allowed to return the favor and refer to the president as “Dubya,” “Junior,” or “Shrub” within his hearing. The president’s supreme rank, or what we prefer to call “the dignity of the office,” protected him from being repaid for his familiarity.

But setting aside that example, “inappropriate informality” is not what we usually mean when we use the word familiarity today.

Familiarity is a sense of comfortable recognizability: knowing someone well and being well known. It can be a false sense, in that sometimes people surprise us. But to say that this feeling “breeds contempt” is nonsense.

Contempt for a person doesn’t emerge spontaneously from familiarity. It comes from allowing the familiarity to rot, or to fester. Not tending it. Allowing stuff to settle and spread over it.

So I hereby set my face against that old saw.

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