To sup with a long spoon - Idiom

James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
The expression "to sup with a long spoon (with somebody)" does not seem terribly common to me, but it is used. I was wondering what the origin was, and also what the precise meaning is.

It was used in the Financial Times, once, to describe a meeting between a government official and a then minister in the Blair government. The former was quoted as saying that he "supped with a long spoon" with the latter, clearly meaning that he (the official) was prepared to sit at table with the minister and discuss various issues with him, but he (the official) did not trust him (the minister) and was wary of the politician. (The official worked for a regulator and the minister is a now discredited politician, who admitted to lying, at one stage.)

Suggestions and comments welcome.
 
  • maxiogee

    Banned
    imithe
    Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable has it under "spoon" - but curiously not under "sup" or "devil". The entry reads:
    He needs a long spoon who sups with the Devil. You will want all your wits about you if you ally or associate yourself with evil. SHAKESPEARE alludes to this proverb in the Comedy of Errors, IV, iii, and again in The Tempest, II, ii, where Stephano says: "Mercy! mercy! this is a devil ... I will leave him, I have no long spoon."
    Therefore behoveth hire a ful long spoon
    the schal ete with a feend.
    Chaucer: Squire's tale, 594


    The Comedy of Errors reference which is not given is
    Dromio of Syracuse: Master, if you do, expect spoon-meat;
    or bespeak a long spoon.

    Antiophilus of Syracuse: Why, Dromio?

    Dromio of Syracuse: Marry, he must have a long spoon
    that must eat with the devil.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    So, it would be a saying or proverb (clearly linked, in origin, to the Bible, I suppose), with literary uses of it over time - but not a direct quotation from the Bible, to one extent or other. Very interesting. (Have Brewer's at home but am in the office right now!...)
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    imithe
    I can find
    …no mention of spoons in the bible other than repeated references in Numbers 7 to "one golden spoon of ten shekels, full of incense".
    …no mention of "sup"
    …three references to "dine", none of which fit.
    …no mention of "devil" which carries any connotation of eating or drinking - except when it is mentioned that Jesus fasted in the desert and was tempted to turn the stones in bread.
     

    french4beth

    Senior Member
    US-English
    Found this here:
    If you keep bad company you will need to be on your guard. Sharing a meal with someone usually means you are already on quite good terms with them or that you want to get to know them better. If you agree to partake of the devil's hospitality, you are on dangerous ground and need to beware. The reference to a long spoon is obscure; probably it emphasizes the distance it is necessary to keep from the potent contamination of the devil.
    Don't know about the Bible, but Chaucer and Shakespeare have used the expression (see above source).
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    The meaning is clear and scanning the Bible throws up fascinating results - how did you do that, Maxiogee? Do you have an e-Bible that you can scan using CTRL + F? I'd like to know! Or did you email Him for clarification and got a comprehensive reply at the speed of light, by instant return of email? Don't tell me you went through the Old and the New Testament between last night and today, looking for words such as "sup" and "spoon"!

    It should be noted that the phrase "to sup with a long spoon" is regularly used, with no reference to the Devil, but this is logical, since in each case the person one is supping with is supposed to be (or play the part of) Satan, potentially at any rate. There are still only about 20 entries if one does a Google Search with Exact Phrase...
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    imithe
    James Brandon said:
    Or did you email Him for clarification
    "Him" and I don't communicate. It appears "He" might be too busy answering prayers from people with real problems.

    James Brandon said:
    Don't tell me you went through the Old and the New Testament between last night and today, looking for words such as "sup" and "spoon"!
    No, don't be ridiculous - I have a squad of small children in the cellar who do that sort of thing for me. They're very cheap to run and easily recruiited off the internet. Disposing of the 'used' ones is becoming tricky, though.

    Actually, there is a wee program for the Macintosh called "BibleViewer" - it looks like it was created with HyperCard and is freeware. I don't think it comes in a Windows flavour, but I'm sure there are similar searchable bible applications out there for those who worship the Gates of Hell!
     

    french4beth

    Senior Member
    US-English
    James Brandon said:
    Do you have an e-Bible that you can scan using CTRL + F? I'd like to know!
    You've got Mail from Him! ;)

    If you're looking for a good Bible search tool (including keyword search), check this out.

    I don't believe people used spoons all that much, as all of the keyword searches at this site pulled up references to religious items, not eating utensils.
     

    Man_from_India

    Senior Member
    Indian English
    So "to sup with a long spoon (with somebody)" means "Don't get too close to somebody because they might cause harm or pose danger"
    Am I right?
     

    Truthsense

    New Member
    English-U. S.
    It seems to have originated in some form with Chaucer's Squires Tale in 1390. Shakespeare adapted it in his Comedy of Errors to say, "he must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil". The saying means to use caution when dealing with unscrupulous or dangerous people. The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs provides more instances of it's use in literature.
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    So "to sup with a long spoon (with somebody)" means "Don't get too close to somebody because they might cause harm or pose danger"
    Am I right?
    You are right in a sense. In my experience, it's most often a warning against associating with someone who either has a bad reputation or is known to be dangerous in some way.
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    If you look at the original example -- an article in the FT of the UK going back a few years, now -- it supports the meaning given in the latest posts. In the course of the Thread, the origin of the expression was established, and it would appear that it does not come from the Bible.
     

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I have a memory of a story that goes roughly as follows:

    Someone had died and was being shown round Heaven and Hell. First they were shown mealtimes in Hell. The condemned souls were at a circular table with a large bowl of delicious soup in the centre. They had very long spoons strapped to their wrists in such a way that they could reach the broth but not their own mouths. They were all sitting with grim expressions on their faces and were obviously starving.

    In Heaven the scene was exactly the same except that the souls were happily feeding each other with their long spoons so that everyone was well-fed and contented.

    I can't help wondering if this might be the origin of the expression in question. That would require this story to be older than the other of course. I have no idea when it first appeared. The logic would have to be twisted a little to make it work, however...if you were in Hell and didn't have a long spoon, you wouldn't even have any bargaining power.

    Conclusion
    Thus there is a possibility in my mind (if nowhere else!) that the phrase means "Don't do any deals with a powerful person who has a bad reputation unless you have considerable bargaining power."
     
    Last edited:

    Truthsense

    New Member
    English-U. S.
    You are right, it does not come from the Bible. I suppose the saying could be used to apply to different situations, but it seems to me to be along the lines of another saying, "if you play with fire you are bound to get burned". The phrase could be applied to different situations.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    It's always best to read a thread from the top - what is reputed to be the earliest recorded example seems to have been mentioned in post #4 - Chaucer's Squires Tale.

    A later version includes an explanation:
    He had need of a long Spoon that sups Kail with the Dee'l. He that has to do with wicked‥Men, had need to be cautious.
    [1721 J. Kelly Scottish Proverbs 147]
     

    Truthsense

    New Member
    English-U. S.
    You are right Andygc. I wasn't exactly sure of what was being said in the old English of 1390 but it was clear that was where later authors who used some form of the saying got it from.
    "Therfore bihoueth hire a ful long spoon That shal ete with a feend."
    [c 1390 Chaucer Squire's Tale l. 602]

     
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