Robert Burns connected the fates of mice and males in his poem "To a Mouse" (1785):

The best-lhelp schemes o" mice an" men

Gang aft a-gley,

But this appears to indicate that mice and also males have actually a lot in common. In comparison, the phrase "Are you a man or a mouse?" appears to invite the concept that mice and men are fairly different. What is the origin of this phrase?



Antecedents: "Are we not men?"

Questions alengthy the lines of "Are you a guy or a mouse?" or "Are we mice or men?" seldom appear in Google Books search outcomes until the beforehand twentieth century, but they have antecedents in rhetorical questions that go back much farther. Insistence on the one-of-a-kind standing of humankind is no doubt primitive, and rhetorical inquiries referring to that unique standing are fairly old too. For instance, Fairburn"s edition of The wonderful life and also adendeavors of Three Fingered Jack, the Terror of Jamaica (1828) has this outcry by Makro, a newly enslaved African, versus slave markets:

"Are we not men?" did he cry; "guys as ye are? We differ in nothing however colour; we feel as you do, and are awake to the very same sense of pain; yet still are we disposed by and also among you like livestock."

The exact same concept is noticeable in The Merchant of Venice (by 1598), in the speech in which Shylock justifies his desire for revenge against Antonio:

Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, sense, affections, passions?—fed through the same food, hurt with the very same tools, topic to the very same conditions, healed by the very same indicates, warmed and cooled by the exact same winter and also summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, execute we not bleed? If you tickle us, carry out we not laugh? If you poiboy us, shall we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

In my see, this assertion of humankind (expressed as a rhetorical question) is one antecedent for the wording that the OP asks around. The longstanding, explicit comparison in idiomatic speech and also composing between mice and also guys is another.

Antecedents: "a male or a mouse"

One of the links lugged up by the search for the phrase "male or a mouse" cited in a comment by Hot Licks over is to this entry in James Halliwell, A Dictionary of Antiquated and also Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and also Ancient Customs, second edition, volume 2 (1852):


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(1) Was formerly offered via much latitude. Thus the Deity was so called with no irreverent intention. Forby tells us the East Anglians have kept that application of the word. (2) The little pieces with which backgammon is played are dubbed men. "A queene at chesse or male at tables," Florio, p. 136. (3) A man or a mouse, something or nothing. See Florio, p. 44. ...

The Florio mentioned below is John Florio, that died in 1625, yet that published a book titled First Fruits, which yield Familiar Speech, Merry Proverbs, Witty Sentences, and also Golden Sayings in 1578. If that is the source of the expression equating "a male or a mouse" with "something or nothing," then viewing the distinction between mouse and guy as existentially crucial is incredibly old indeed.

An echo of Florio"s expression shows up in a letter of May 1, 1712, from John Chamberlayne to William Nicolkid republished in Letters on Various Subjects, Literary, Political, and also Ecclesiastical, to and also from William Nicolboy, D.D. (1809):

When I wrote last to your Lordship, I was of opinion, with a great many type of others that have been made April fools, that the initially of May would certainly have created some great event; however I was undeceived last week, and assured from my Lord Treasurer"s mouth, at 3rd hand, that the Mountains had made a wrong reckoning, and also are not now to carry forth till around this particular day sevennight; and also then, my Lord, if nobody gets the start of me, you shall be informed whether the production be a Man or a Mouse.

The consumption right here is metaphorical, as what Chamberlayne is mentioning is an event that may prove to be something or nothing. But the expression could additionally be used in an either/or way to show the two prospects that lay prior to a young perboy. From Beaumont and Fletcher , Love"s Cure, or The Martial Maid (by 1615):

Lucio. Pray be not angry.

Bobadilla. I am angry, and I will certainly be angry, Diabolo; what must you execute in the Kitchin? Cannot the Chef lick their Fingers without your Overseeing? Nor the Maids make Pottage, other than your Dog"s-head be in the Pot? Don Lucio, — Don Quot-Quean, Don Spinster, wear a Petticoat still, and also put on your Smock a" Monday; I will have actually a Baby o" Clouts created it, like an excellent Girl; nay, if you will certainly demands be starching of Ruffs, and sowing of Black-job-related, I will of a mild and loving Tutor, end up being a Tyrant; your Father has actually committed you to my Charge, and I will make a Man or a Mouse on you.

Another early sense of "a male or a mouse" seems to be as component of an axiomatic test of ignorance, choose the capability to identify a hawk from a handobserved, or an ass from an elbow. From a record of the trial of William Scot in 1612, reported in Ricdifficult Challoner, Memoirs of Missionary Priests, and also Other Catholics of Both Sexes, That Have Suffered Death in England also on Religious Accounts, from the Year 1577, to 1684 (1741):

But as Mr. Scot perceived the judges were reresolved to continue, upon bare presumption, to straight the jury to carry him in guilty; he told them, he was sorry to check out his reason was to be committed to the verdict of those negative ignorant guys, who knew not what a priest was, nor whether he was a man or a mouse. Then turning himself to the jury, he sassist, It grieved him a lot that his blood was to autumn upon their heads; yet withal, bid them think about, for the securing of their very own conscientific researches, that nothing had been alledged versus him yet mere presumptions; and as he was not to be his very own accuser, they were to continue according to what had been legally showed, and not upon presumptions.

But actions that prove one to be bold or timorous might additionally be expressed in such terms. From "Terry O"Daly"s Visit to the Chateau D"Eu," in Bentley"s Miscellany, volume 14 (1843):

"Does your Majesty," claims I, seeing I wregarding be a male or a mouse, "want a daycent hocolony boy to sarve you well, the divil a spalpeen of them all that would certainly fire even a child"s bownarrowhead at you would live five shakes to tell the story, if his brain-box was in the neighbourhood of my shilelagh, plaise your Majesty," says I.

Likewise the older difference in between meaning (or worth) and indefinition (or worthlessness) stayed in play in later years. For instance, from "Epigrams of Martial, Part 1, Translations, Imitations, &c." reprinted in The Wit"s Miscellany (1774):

Nothing or Cæsar," Borgia would be—True—

Because he"s at when both "Nought and also Cæsar" too!

... This Epigram gave occasion to the common Latin Proverb, "Aut Cæsar aut Nullus," that is, " A Wooden Leg or a Golden Chain," Or, "A Man or a Mouse," as We say ; tho" the original Latin one is certainly that, as in the Epigram, " Aut nihil aut Cæsar."

And from "The Resistmuch less Foe," in The Anglo-American (December 6, 1845):

"... And, regarding money lent on promissory notes, just how are ye to understand whether he who borrows it is a man or a mouse? It"s regularly all promise and no pay. Now I"ll not be fooled. I"ll have what neither guy nor evil one can take from me,—I"ll have actually that which will certainly neither burn, nor waste, nor melt ameans,—I"ll have land!"

The dichotomy in between boldness and also timidity appears—aacquire, not as a question, however as a choice—in Evelyn Benboy, Ashcombe Churchyard (1861):

"She continues to be in the home." said Edmund, "and pats and tickles her victim to fatality."

"Then womales execute take a hint from her sometimes," remarked George.

"But it relies on ourselves," shelp Campbell, "which one we choose to be, "men or mice"!"

A evaluation by John Manly of of Brandl"s Quellen des weltlichen Dramas in England also vor Shakespeare in The Journal of Germanic philology, volume 2, number 3 (1899) sums up the background on "a guy or a mouse" as offered in

A male or a mouse is a proverbial expression to expush risk or encourage a perkid to be daring. The principle is "Be a guy, or else do not pretfinish to be one yet admit that you have what Chaucer"s Pandarus Troilus and also Criseyde (by 1386)> calls "a mouse"s heart."" See Schole-House of Women <1541/1572>, 385 ff. (Hazlitt, <Remains of the> Early Pop Poetry 1V, 119–20):

"Fear not, she saith vnto her spouse.

A guy or a mouse whether be ye?"


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"It is but haphazard, a male or a mouse," Apius and also V <1563/1575>, Dodsley, XII, 356.


It therefore appears that clearly asking a person whether he is a man or a mouse goes back at leastern as far as The Schole-residence of Women, which was publimelted as beforehand as 1541, and is quoted by Hazlitt from editions attracted from 1560 and 1572. Nevertheless, the (almost) precise wording "Are you a man or a mouse?" does not appear in Google Book search results until a flurry of recommendations to the following joke (taken here from The Literary Digest (May 13, 1905), which cites the Cleveland Ledger as its source:

MRS. PECK (contemptuously): "What are you, anyhow, a male or a mouse?"

MR. PECK (bitterly): "A man, my dear. If I were a mouse I"d have actually you up on that table yelling for assist ideal currently."

And the initially precise match for "Are you a man or a mouse?" shows up in The Railmeans Maintenance of Way Employes Journal (September 1921):

Trinidad, Colo, Lodge 204.—Are you a guy or a mouse? By monitoring I have noticed that the guy that of his own cost-free will certainly and also accord, becomes a member of a labor company, pays his dues promptly and also atoften tends meetings on a regular basis, is a male. He have the right to constantly be relied on for any kind of duty that may be compelled by the lodge.