Origin of phrase "man or mouse?"

On an entirely different note from my previous thread, does anyone know the origin of the phrase “man or mouse?” I’m sure it’s on the internet somewhere, but my attempts on searching google for it have resulted in nothing other than what the term means and books in which it has been used.

The first appearance I can find of “Are you a man or a mouse?” is in the 1937 Marx Brothers film “A Day at the Races.” I’m sure it was already common by that time.

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Perhaps it’s a corruption of the original meaning?

I can find an editorial writer from 1879 taunting Rutherford B. Hayes with the phrase. Sorrry that isn’t much help. I’ll try to do some more on it if I get time.


I think Spanky’s conscience says it to him in Mama’s Little Pirate (1934). But as already noted, it had apparently already gained currency.

I’m guessing that this comparison has been an obvious and natural one to make since humans’ first attempts at building a place to store food and their observation of the results. Therefore, it might make more sense to look for particular famous ways of saying it, rather than just any man-vs.-mouse comparison.

This was my first thought, Robert Burns, “To A Mouse”, 1785

1564 description by Nicholas Udall of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon:

Udall’s work is a translation of Erasmus’s Latin Apophthegmatum opus, where the original anecdote does not contain the “man or mouse” phrase:

The Online Etymology dictionary has

possibly referring to the first edition of Udall’s work in 1542.

I can do one year earlier than that: The line “Fear not, she saith vnto her spouse, A man or a Mouse whether be ye” appears in The Scholehouse of Women, an antifeminist satirical poem probably written by Edward Gosynhyll. It was first published, anonymously, in London in 1541.

Nice. I wonder if it really does originate around that time or has a much longer textual history that just hasn’t been spotted yet.

It thus appears that explicitly asking a person whether he is a man or a mouse goes back at least as far as The Schole-house of Women, which was published as early as 1541 and is quoted by Hazlitt from editions drawn from 1560 and 1572. Nevertheless, the (almost) exact wording “Are you a man or a mouse?” doesn’t appear in Google Book search results until a flurry of references to the following joke (taken here from The Literary Digest (May 13, 1905), which cites the Cleveland [Ohio] Ledger as its source:

MRS. PECK (contemptuously): “What are you, anyhow, a man or a mouse?”

MR. PECK (bitterly): “A man, my dear. If I were a mouse I’d have you up on that table yelling for help right now.”

And the first exact match for “Are you a man or a mouse?” appears in The Railway Maintenance of Way Employes Journal (September 1921):

Trinidad, Colo[rado], Lodge 204.—Are you a man or a mouse? By observation I have noticed that the man who of his own free will and accord, becomes a member of a labor organization, pays his dues promptly and attends meetings regularly, is a man. He can always be depended on for any duty that may be required by the lodge.

Are you Sven Yargs? If not, it would have been courteous to credit him as the author of your (entire) post. Mind you, I already mentioned “The Scholehouse of Women” upthread—repeating it in a bold 36-point font isn’t going to fool anyone into thinking that you thought of it first.

Putting the best light on it perhaps Jasmine didn’t click the bump link which led to Sven’s post and found it instead by googling. Which of course still doesn’t excuse the lack of an acknowledgement.

Impressive finds BTW, both by Sven and you yourself, Psychonaut.

I have no more information about the origin of the phrase, but here is a useful flowchart to determine whether you are indeed a man or a small furry rodent.