The slowest mule is nearest to the whip.

James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
In the cult 1960s British TV series 'The Prisoner', this expression is used: "The slowest mule is nearest to the whip." The context is No.2 (who is the man running the Village, where No.6 is held) berating No.6 for standing out and refusing to conform to rules etc.

The Prisoner - Wikiquote

There is a saying, "The slowest mule is nearest to the whip." [Episode 12 of Season 1]


I wonder how common the expression is (or was, since it does sound ancient): I have only heard it in 'The Prisoner', precisely. If contributors have heard it elsewhere, use it or are familiar with it in other contexts, I would like to hear.

Or was the expression invented by the authors of the series, and it never was a saying in the first place?

Insight welcome. Thanks.
 
  • Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I have no idea, James. "The slowest mule is nearest to the whip" rings no bells with me.

    I imagine you've googled? What have your explorations thrown up?
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I heard it when I watched the TV series (again, recently, on DVD); in the story, it does not say it is a German saying, just 'a saying'. So, it would appear, it is not an English saying. It sounds to me like the authors of the script translated it from German into English, then, unless they made it up entirely, but this sounds like an implausible coincidence (i.e. that it would have existed in German and they made it up, and hit on an existing German expression).

    I did Google it and did not find very much at all, hence was puzzled, hence this Thread. Maybe the online search can be conducted in other ways and throw up other results but, when I do it in Google, I get <40 entries, and most of them relate to the TV series. So, it would be pretty rare, or made up (by the script-writers at the time). I wanted to have other contributors' views/ reactions.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I'm also guessing that it was either translated from the German or one of the writers grew up in a German-heritage household and heard the phrase there. It was instantly understandable as a sort of harsh, "The squeaky wheel gets the grease", meaning that the most troublesome thing gets most of the attention.
     

    ain'ttranslationfun?

    Senior Member
    US English
    I thought it might mean "The last mule in a team can let those in front of it do most of the pulling.", for which I can't think of an idiom offhand, sorry.
     

    spilorrific

    Senior Member
    English - US
    My German Dept colleague reports (the ellipses are hers):
    Essentially, it is the opposite of the early worm bird catches the worm. The last one gets the worst treatment..whipped/eaten.

    The last one gets eaten by the dogs... is what the translation means...Like the old saying.. you don't have to be faster than the bear... just faster than the other person whom the bear will eat.
     
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    Aardvark01

    Senior Member
    British English (Midlands)
    I'm not familiar with the saying but the principle "the slowest mule/horse closer to the whip/carriage" describes the 'wheelers' function in a driving team, which was closets to the drawn carriage for the purpose of braking. The faster animal(s) would be placed at the front.
    Definition of WHEELER
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    If you and your friend are being chased by a bear, you don't have to outrun the bear - you just have to outrun your friend. ;)
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Thanks and this is all interesting. I do not speak German and was not familiar with the equivalent German expression. I was wondering, precisely, whether it might actually be a rare English expression. From what you have all said, it is not (so, I am not the only one who has not heard it in other contexts!), but it does sound like it was adapted and translated from German.

    The meaning seems clear: the problem unit in the group (because he/she/it is slow or reluctant to obey orders) gets into trouble (i.e. gets whipped/ punished). This would be in line with the context, against the background of the plot in the TV series.
     

    spilorrific

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Sorry I couldn't be more helpful. Also sorry that I did not catch my friend's typo (the early BIRD catches the worm). At least I hope the origin / meaning is a bit clearer now for you.
     

    velisarius

    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    I fear the German connection may be a red herring, since the saying mentioned in #3 doesn't have anything to do with mules or whips. In fact I've found it translated as "The devil take the hindmost". The phrase in question could just as easily have been adapted from that English one, or is simply a new one, made up for the occasion.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I fear the German connection may be a red herring, since the saying mentioned in #3 doesn't have anything to do with mules or whips...
    :thumbsup:
    ... simply a new one, made up for the occasion.
    That gets my vote. Having now googled, I see that Number 6 replies with something equally portentous-sounding:
    Number Two: There is a saying, "The slowest mule is nearest to the whip."
    Number Six: And another. "He who digs a pit will one day lie in it."

    'Scriptwriters having fun' is my diagnosis;).
     
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    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    OK, so there is no German connection and it was merely made up for the TV series: I had to take the comments on the German saying on trust, since I do not speak German, beyond a lexicon of about 50 words... The phrase with the 'pit' has echoes of, 'stop digging' and combines it with, 'you have made your bed, now lie in it'.
     
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