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There is a proverb saying "Once bitten, twice shy", and I am not sure what "twice" means here.

Does it mean

Once you are bitten, you get twice as shy as before

or

Once you are bitten, you get shy the next time

Also, does "once" means the same as the one in this sentence?

Is "once" in "Once bitten, twice shy" a conjunction or an adverb?

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    It says "twice", i.e., two times, but the exact number isn't important. The meaning is that it takes a long time to reestablish trust or confidence once it's shaken. Jun 6, 2022 at 12:37
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    "On the first occasion, if you are bitten, on the second occasion you will be significantly more cautious" doesn't scan as well
    – Richard
    Jun 6, 2022 at 15:38
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    It's similar to the use of "twice" in another phrase, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
    – tkp
    Jun 7, 2022 at 2:52
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    @tkp I disagree. In your example your once and twice refer both to being fooled. But in op's example the first once refers to being bitten, but the twice refers to something else Jun 7, 2022 at 10:51
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    I always took it to mean that if you were bit on one occasion, you would be extra-careful not only on the following similar occasion, but on the occasion after the following occasion as well. Jun 7, 2022 at 21:30

9 Answers 9

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The literal meaning of the proverb is that after being bitten on one occasion a person will be shy on two occasions. The Free Dictionary gives multiple meanings, including "Once one is hurt by someone or something, one will be extra cautious to avoid that person or thing." "Twice shy" suggests that the extra caution continues to be exercised.

The grammar of the proverb is ambiguous due to its brevity. "Once" can be understood to mean "on a single occasion", but it could also be understood to mean "After being". This second understanding would be emphasised in a paraphrase "Once bitten you will be twice shy". I believe the first meaning is more likely because of the parallel structure where "once bitten" is matched with "twice shy".

Other interpretations of the proverb suggest that "twice" refers to being doubly cautious in the future. This would be clearer in the paraphrase "Once bitten, twice as shy". To me the word "shy" already indicates caution, and possibly excessive caution, so this interpretation is also less likely.

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    "Twice as shy" is not a paraphrase though, because this is not the meaning of "shy" in the proverb. "Shy" here is a verb, not an adjective.
    – Graham
    Jun 6, 2022 at 14:46
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    @Graham Why do you think "shy" is a verb here? "Shy" parallels with "bitten", which is either the past participle from a passive construction, or an adjective. It has no tense, either, so I don't see how "shy" can be a verb".
    – gotube
    Jun 6, 2022 at 16:58
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    @gotube I think it’s a valid reading. As a verb shy means to start away in fright. If you have been bitten once, you may well shy twice. Jun 6, 2022 at 21:34
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    @gotube Yes, "bitten" is a passive-tense past participle. As for a tense for "shy", proverbs naturally drop words for brevity, which in English tends to make them look like imperative forms. These are not commands but are statements of something which is predicted to happen. For example "mess with the bull, get the horns". There's probably an official name for that grammatical mood/structure, if we went digging for it, but I hope you get my meaning. :)
    – Graham
    Jun 7, 2022 at 10:45
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    While I like your comment on ambiguity, it makes me think that perhaps the use of once should be regarded as more of a pun than an ambiguity.
    – Lee Mosher
    Jun 7, 2022 at 16:46
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In this context, "twice" means, "the second time you think about doing that same thing". It's a misuse of the word "twice" which normally means "two times", and not "the next/second time".

Merriam-Webster defines the phrase:

—used to mean that a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again

In their definition, "twice" is represented by "doing it again"

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    I would argue that it's not a misuse, it's just a colloquial use that's common in idioms. Cp. fool me once, shame on me; fool me twice, shame on you. In casual speech you might hear "He does it once, I'll give him a pass; he does it twice, and I'm gonna report him."
    – George K.
    Jun 6, 2022 at 2:25
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    As @GeorgeK. says, the implication is that one bad experience may cause someone to be cautious many times afterwards.
    – psmears
    Jun 6, 2022 at 11:35
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    It's not a misuse, because it's a count of the number of times.
    – Graham
    Jun 6, 2022 at 14:44
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    @gotube I must argue that, strictly speaking, this is not a misuse. 'A second time' is a well-attested contextual meaning of the word 'twice;' cp. the well-cited OED sense 1.c for twice, adv. (n. and adj.); the phrase to think twice ("to consider a second time"); the idiom an old man is twice a child ("old age is a second childhood"). This use of twice is simply not a misuse; it is an unusual but fundamentally standard use of the word.
    – George K.
    Jun 6, 2022 at 18:15
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    @GeorgeK. Ah yes. Then I agree then that "twice" can mean "a second time". I can't say why right now, but the usage of "twice" in those expressions still doesn't feel the same as in this one, so I'm leaving my answer as is. Thanks for the explanations and sharing your research :)
    – gotube
    Jun 6, 2022 at 21:49
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There are two different questions you could ask. One is what the saying means, the other is what the words would mean if they were not a saying. The saying means that a person who has been hurt in the past will be cautious in the future. It does not mean any particular number of times or amount of caution.

The words, were they not a saying, would contrast the singularity of "once" with the duality of "twice". "Once X, twice Y" would say that one must only X a single time to Y more than once. That is, it would mean that a person who had been bitten a single time would be shy on two future occasions.

However, it's important to note that in the saying, it does not mean any particular number of times. It can just mean on a single future occasion. It can mean more than once. It just means a person hurt in the past is cautious in the future.

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  • Not convinced that "Once X, twice Y" has any definitive meaning. The meaning declared in your answer is but one possible interpretation. "Once" and "twice" don't have fixed meanings in the phrase independent of X and Y. Everything argued in response to the OP's specific phrase could be argued in response to your abstract variant of it. [But perhaps I'm thinking of this differently than you intended.]
    – FMc
    Jun 9, 2022 at 6:07
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The first part of the phrase once bitten could be expanded as once you have been bitten. It is not referring exclusively to actually being bitten of course but to any unpleasant experience.

The second part twice shy could be expanded as the next time you will be more cautious. It does not refer, except loosely, to the second time. The assumption is that your caution will continue.

We also have a similar saying the burnt child fears the fire (or dreads the fire).

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  • This is incorrect. "Once" is counting the number of times.
    – Graham
    Jun 6, 2022 at 14:41
  • @Graham yes, exactly.
    – mdewey
    Jun 6, 2022 at 15:05
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    @Graham ' "Once" is counting the number of times.' how do you know this to be the case in this instance? It seems highly plausible that it could take on the more general meaning of 'after'.
    – Glen Yates
    Jun 6, 2022 at 19:14
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    @GlenYates Because of the parallel construction with "twice". "Once X, twice Y." contrasts the singularity of "once" with the non-singularity of "twice". Jun 6, 2022 at 19:54
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    @dannysauer perhaps it is just a UK usage as your profile suggests you are in the US.
    – mdewey
    Jun 11, 2022 at 12:41
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Merriam-Webster has a definition for this saying:

a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again

This is one of many proverbs that doesn’t make literal sense. If there’s any explanation for the way it uses “twice,” it has to do with regional slang in England centuries ago.

Another variation is,

Once bitten, the second time shy.

This has the same meaning. It’s more standard English, but much less common.

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Yes twice shy leans towards the meaning of being more shy and knowing not to do it again, not explicity "twice".

And yes "once" here does usually mean someone does it one time, learns his lesson, doesn't do it again.

We use once to mean 'at a time in the past but not now', which fits your context, so it is an adverb.

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    "Once" is meaning "someone does it one time", yes. But in this case it is not meaning "at a time in the past but not now". It is simply a count of how many times bitten. :)
    – Graham
    Jun 6, 2022 at 14:43
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once you are bitten by something, you will be twice as shy of it

The many meanings of "shy" all connect to avoidance or distancing. One of the meanings of the expression "shy of" is "afraid of" or "staying away from".

There is an embedded pun in the saying, contrasting the multiple senses of "once" and "twice".

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To understand this, you need to know there is a different meaning of "shy"

"Shy" in this proverb is a verb meaning "to flinch" or "to react negatively to". We still use the word with horses (and sometimes other animals), to describe their response when they encounter scary situations and panic. It is not the adjective "shy" meaning "being cautious/fearful".

The meaning of the proverb is that if you are bitten once, you will naturally flinch away from the bite the first time - but the next time you're in a situation where you might be bitten, you'll flinch away before you're bitten. In other words, if you're in a situation where something bad happens to you, in future you'll react as if that bad thing was going to happen again.

In answer to your question about parts of grammar, both "once" and "twice" are adverbs counting a number of events, which can be called numeral adverbs, iterative numerals, or multiplicative numerals, depending on your grammar reference. "Once" is the count of the number of times you are bitten, and "twice" is the count of the number of times you shy.

Note that this reaction may be a good thing (learning from experience to avoid common hazards) or it may be a negative thing (reacting negatively when there isn't a real need to). The proverb can actually be used for both these meanings, which is interesting. Most proverbs have a "moral" meaning of what's good and bad, but this is more describing a situation and not exactly saying that the outcome is good or bad, only that it is what it is.

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    The question isn't about the meaning of "shy", it's about the way "twice" is used.
    – Barmar
    Jun 6, 2022 at 14:25
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    @Barmar The OP clearly does not understand the meaning of the word "shy" in this context, as proven by their question. Until you understand this meaning of the word "shy", it is literally impossible to answer how "twice" is used because you are completely unable to parse the sentence. All other answers fail to cover this.
    – Graham
    Jun 6, 2022 at 14:35
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    >> "To understand this ..." No you don't. In the proverb, shy isn't 'to shy (away)', it's 'be/are shy'. 'Once bitten, twice coy' though non-idiomatic, conveys the same meaning.
    – mcalex
    Jun 7, 2022 at 5:02
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    @mcalex No it isn't, because that's meaningless. The proverb does not mean that you become shy, which is a continual state of being, it means that you react differently to a specific stimulus. "Bitten" cannot possibly link to becoming shy, because this is not a possible consequence of being bitten. When you know that "shy" here means "shy away", this all has meaning, because it reflects a natural reaction if something tries to bite you and one which is naturally reinforced after actually being bitten. As for "twice coy", that's doubly meaningless (and is not a proverb that exists).
    – Graham
    Jun 7, 2022 at 10:54
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    @Graham it is possible to be shy of something, and that is indeed a likely consequence of being bitten by it. Jun 7, 2022 at 13:29
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My insight tells me that the saying has its "punch" in contrasting what the biting party might expect: "that once bitten => once shy". But the point is to correct his expectation kind of saying "no Siree ... I am not taking it lightly, I am taking it twice as seriously as you would expect. It's not a one-to-one relationship". (If it was one-to-one the biter could set into motion a circularly-recurring-cyclical-cycle c=2rPI :)

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    But there is no "biting party" involved. The expression is purely about life experiences.
    – Chenmunka
    Jun 7, 2022 at 7:12

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