Ancient wisdom, or my own?

Charles C Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Wed Oct 23 14:25:16 UTC 2013

Don't y'all reckon that the saying about riding a tiger could be considered a variant of the proverbial "holding a tiger by the tail" (it is dangerous to keep holding on, but deadly to let go)--a metaphor for certain dilemmas?  Versions of that concept appear at least as early of the 1850s.*   And it, in turn, is perhaps an adaptation of the proverbial "holding a wolf by the ears," current in Classical times, and re-introduced to Europe (including England) by Erasmus's _Adagia_ in the early 16th century.

* For some reason (or no reason), the "advanced search" feature for Google Books no longer allows me to search by date.  What's up with that??


From: American Dialect Society [ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] on behalf of ADSGarson O'Toole [adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM]
Sent: Sunday, October 20, 2013 4:06 PM

George and list members: A version of the saying about dismounting a
tiger is listed in the proverbs section of the Yale Book of quotations
with an 1875 citation given further below. Here are some other cites
in the 1870s.

Year: 1872
Title: A Vocabulary and Hand-Book of the Chinese Language: Romanized
in the Mandarin Dialect. In Two Volumes Comprosed in Three Parts
Volume: 2 (Parts 2 and 3)
Section: Metaphorical and Proverbial Sentences
Quote Page: 573
Column: 1
Published: Rozario, Marcal and Company, London
[Begin excerpt]
... it is impossible for him who rides a tiger to dismount.
[End excerpt]

Year: 1873
Title: Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy,
With the Principal Variations of the Chang-chew and Chin-chew Dialects
Author: Carstairs Douglas
Quote Page: 139
Column: 2
Publisher: Trubner & Co., London
[Begin excerpt]
... to bind a tiger is easy the trouble is to let him loose ...
... he who rides a tiger cannot dismount ...
[End excerpt]

Year: 1874
Title: A Syllabic Dictionary of the Chinese Language Arranged
According to the Wu-Fang Yuen Yin
Quote Page: 345
Column: 1
Publisher: American Presbyterian Mission Press, Shanghai
[Begin excerpt]
... he who rides a tiger has need of great skill to dismount.
[End excerpt]

Here is the YBQ citation.

[ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro,
Section Proverbs, Page 619, Yale University Press, New Haven.
(Verified on paper) [/ref]
[Begin excerpt]
He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount.
William Scarborough,A Collection of Chinese Proverbs
[End excerpt]

The key reference "Irrepressible Churchill" attributed a version of
the saying to Winston Churchill in 1937 and pointed to the volume
"Step by step: 1936-1939" by Winston Churchill. (I have not checked
this on paper yet.) Other references point to "While England Slept"
(1938) by Churchill.

[ref] 1966, Irrepressible Churchill: A Treasury of Winston Churchill's
Wit by Kay Halle, Page 136, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and
New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
W.S.C.: Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not
dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry.
[End excerpt]


On Thu, Oct 17, 2013 at 4:33 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole
<adsgarsonotoole at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Ancient wisdom, or my own?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> I haven't had time to search yet. Harry Truman employed a saying that
> was thematically similar. In this variant of the saying the dismount
> is too difficult to attempt. Ralph Keyes lists the expression in his
> book of Truman quotes and Google Books shows a snippet:
> [ref] 1995, The Wit & Wisdom of Harry Truman, Edited by Ralph Keyes,
> Page 56, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]
> [Begin excerpt]
> Being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding
> or be swallowed.
> [End excerpt]
> Keyes says the quotation is on page one of:  Truman, Harry S. 1956.
> Memoirs. Volume 2, Years of Trial and Hope. Garden City, New York:
> Doubleday.
> A snippet in Google Books shows the following extended quote on page
> one of a volume in Truman's Memoirs
> [Begin excerpt]
> Within the first few months I discovered that being a President is
> like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.
> [End excerpt]
> Garson
> On Thu, Oct 17, 2013 at 12:01 PM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
>> Subject:      Re: Ancient wisdom, or my own?
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> George,
>> There appears to be lots of evidence that it's not your own wisdom,
>> but ancient.  At least to Winston Churchill.  :-)  [As everyone can
>> tell, my investigation has been very superficial.  I leave the rest
>> to the quote-hunters, who may need to consult Chinese texts.]
>> Joel
>> At 10/17/2013 11:46 AM, George Thompson wrote:
>>>An apophthegm that has been in my mind for the last 5 years of so, is to
>>>the effect that riding a tiger is really not all that difficult.  It's only
>>>the dismount that is can be tricky.
>>>The thought has been coming into my mind whenever the fanatics who has been
>>>so useful to their party's bosses in spewing delusional falsehoods and
>>>allowing the bosses to look virtuous and say "We don't believe that he's a
>>>foreign born Muslim, though surely many Americans do -- we wonder why",
>>>&c., have gotten obstropolous, challenged the bosses' status, and otherwise
>>>proven themselves a burden and an embarrassment.
>>>Please note that by careful attention to my wording, I have not indicated
>>>which political party I have in mind, nor even what country they infest.

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list