The proverb in the title of this post rarely, if ever, occurs in modern literature and may even have been forgotten but for the title of Dorothy Sayers’ novel. However, at one time it was well-known, and extensive literature is devoted to it. The publications appeared not only in the indispensable Notes and Queries, American Notes and Queries, and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine but also in such great newspapers and periodicals as The British Apollo and Churchman’s Shilling Magazine, to say nothing of Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature of the United Kingdom. Predictably, the source of the proverb has not been discovered. In my fairly recent essay on the custom of hanging out the broom, I wrote that those who try to find the origin of idioms straddle the line between folklore in the broadest sense of the word (that is, including customs) and etymology. The story of nine tailors, besides being “global,” also poses an “interdisciplinary” challenge, a circumstance that should warm the cockles of every modern scholar’s heart.
Apart from the fact that the saying sounds like pure nonsense, we immediately observe that it refers to nine, a numeral whose occurrence is too frequent to inspire confidence: compare the whole nine yards, dressed up to the nines, nine days’ wonder, to look nine ways “to squint,” and so forth. Nine seems to be a vague synonym for many, and in this respect it shares common ground with seven. Other than that, a search for the origin of a proverbial saying is in many respects similar to the process familiar to a student of word etymology. First, the important question arises: native or borrowed? In France (at least in Brittany), they at one time believed that il faut neuf tailleurs pour faire un homme (a word for word equivalent of the English phrase), while the Germans teach (or taught) that tailors are such insignificant creatures that ninety-nine of them weigh only one pound, while weighing even less would do them nothing but good (“Neun und neunzig Schneider gehen auf ein Pfund, / Wiegen sie noch weniger, so sind sie gesund”). Elsewhere in Germany, it is said that twelve button-makers (Knöpfmacher) or twelve tailors make a man. We are dealing with a migratory phrase that may reflect the poverty of itinerant tailors (see also my post “Praising a cat to sell a horse”: it mentions the idiom to whip the cat in connection with tailors wandering from house to house and thus scraping for their livelihood). Second, the most popular explanation of the English phrase, the one that suggested to Sayers her title, becomes quite suspicious—unless we assume that the idiom originated in England, fell victim to folk etymology at home, and spread in its later form to the continent.
This most popular explanation takes its cue from the theme “For whom the bell tolls?” and resolves itself into the following. In some places in England the bell tolled nine times for a deceased man, six times for a woman, and three times for a child. Thus, nine tolls made, as it were, a dead man. The rest depends on the flight of a rather wild imagination. The strokes told, or counted, at the end of a knell were allegedly called tellers, because people mistook tolled for told. Tellers in turn were “corrupted” into tailors from their sounding at the end, or “tail,” of the knell. This is then how a tailor became the ninth part of a man. Surprisingly, this etymology has been repeated even by some people who should have known better.
Since nine tailors make a man appeared in print in William Hickes’s Grammatical Drollery (1682), by the last quarter of the seventeenth century the phrase had become sufficiently popular to be recognized in a poem. Many English idioms surfaced around that time, when slang and popular sayings flooded chapbooks, pamphlets, and even more dignified sources. The poem in Grammatical Drollery contained such lines:
“There is a proverb which has been of old,
And many men have likewise been so bold,
To the discredit of the Taylor’s Trade,
Nine Taylors go to make up a man, they said.
But for their credit I’ll unriddle it t’ye:
A draper once fell into povertie,
Nine Tayors joyn’d their purses together then,
To set him up, and make him a man again.”
The story about nine tailors rescuing a beggar circulated in several versions. One refers to an event that allegedly happened in 1742. Since Hickes’s book is much older, this date cannot be taken seriously, but the plot is more or less the same everywhere in England. Hickes, it will be remembered, mentioned a draper who “who fell into povertie.” According to another legend, an orphan boy applied for alms at a fashionable tailor’s shop in London, in which nine journeymen were employed. The men took pity on the youngster and contributed nine shillings for his relief. With this capital he bought fruit, retailed it at a profit, and, as time went on, became a rich man. He bought a carriage and painted the motto on the panel: “Nine tailors made me a man,” a motto reminiscent of “Seven at one blow.”
This tale, which looks like pure fiction, presents tailors in a favorable light. Another tale denigrates them. The version printed in 1726 tells that once there were eight (!) “slender” tailors who finished some work, received the remuneration they expected, and were on their way home. An evil female servant attacked the group. To frighten the men, she took “a very terrible black-pudding,” which the attacked tailors mistook for a dangerous weapon. Not only did the malevolent servant get all the money; she also belabored the tailors with a cudgel.
“Thus, eight not being able to deal with one woman, by consequence could not make a man, on which account a ninth is added. ‘Tis the opinion of our curious virtuosos, that this want of courage ariseth from their immoderate eating of cucumbers, which too much refrigerates their blood. However, to their eternal honour be it spoke, they have been often known to encounter a sort of cannibals, to whose assaults they are often subject, not fictitious, but real man-eaters, and that with a lance but two inches long; nay, and although they go arm’d no further than their middle-fingers.”
Silly jokes of this type are many. But not a single one has been “perpetrated” by the gentlemen of that profession, for, as Charles Lamb exclaimed: “How extremely rare is a noisy tailor! A mirthful and obstreperous tailor!” (“On the Melancholy of Tailors”). By contrast, witticisms ridiculing dishonest, stupid, and pusillanimous tailors are countless. Queen Elizabeth is reported to have begun her reply to a petition by eighteen tailors with the words: “Gentlemen both.” The same response has been ascribed to another person. Whoever addressed eighteen tailors as gentlemen both must have had our proverb in mind. Carlyle also knew and alluded to it in his Sartor Resartus but offered no explanation of its origin.
It seems that a tale featuring the adventures of tailors (not necessarily nine) was current in seventeenth-century, or earlier, Europe (compare again the Grimms’ “The Brave Little Tailor”). The proverb might have been coined as the corollary to it. The versions known to us are echoes of the popular tradition that gave birth to the Early Modern plot. Its center of dissemination is beyond recovery. The number nine is arbitrary, and the sentiment expressed in the proverb has little to recommend it, unless we agree with some interpreters who insist that nine tailors are needed to make a good suit of clothes, but there is no evidence to confirm this statement.
Image credits: (1) Sarcophagus known as the “Muses Sarcophagus”, representing the nine Muses and their attributes. Marble, first half of the 2nd century AD, found by the Via Ostiense. Louvre Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Whole Black Pudding. (c) Difydave via iStock. (3) The Brave Little Tailor. Illustration by H.J. Ford from the 1889 edition of ‘The Blue Fairy Book’ edited by Andrew Lang. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.