meaning and origin of ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’



Railway Speculation has become the sole object of the world—cupidity is aroused, and roguery shields itself under its name, as a more safe and rapid way of gaining its ends. Abroad as well as at home, has it proved the rallying point of all rascality—the honest man is carried away by the current and becomes absorbed in the vortex—the timid, the quiet, the moral, and he who “has no speculation in his eyes,” are at last, after some slight hesitation, caught in the circle of the whirlpool as it expands, and they follow in the giddy whirl with as much excitement as those whom they have watched with pity and derision.

one man's meat is another man's poison - Illustrated London News - 18 October 1845

“Why not I as well as my neighbour?” says the baker, “it is the most rapid way of making one’s bread.”
“It’s nothing but a joint concern,” says the butcher, “luck’s luck; every man takes his chance; what’s one man’s meat is another’s poison—I shall have a cut of the carcase.”
“I hope it will last,” says the shoemaker, “for what boots it sticking to trade when your sole chance is the railroad.”

from The Illustrated London News – 18th October 1845



The proverb (what’s) one man’s meat is another (man)’s poison means that things liked or enjoyed by one person may be distasteful to another.

In this proverb, meat has its original sense of food in general, anything used as nourishment, solid food as opposed to drink. This original sense survives in sweetmeat and in the phrase be meat and drink to, meaning be a source of great pleasure to.

Likewise, the French word viande, which translates meat, originally designated food in general. (It is from late Latin vivanda, an alteration of classical Latin vivenda, meaning that which is necessary for life, a noun use of the neuter plural gerundive of the verb vivere, to live.) French viande is the origin of the archaic English word viands, which means articles of food, provisions, victuals. In A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), Randle Cotgrave translated viande as:

Meat, food, sustenance, victuals, viands, acates (especially of flesh).

(The plural of the obsolete noun acate meant provisions that are not made in the house, but have to be purchased fresh when wanted, as meat, fish, etc. – acate is derived from a variant of French achat, purchase.)


The proverb (what’s) one man’s meat is another (man)’s poison was already hackneyed in the early 17th century, according to the English poet and playwright Thomas Middleton (1580-1627) in Platoes cap Cast at this yeare 1604, being leape-yeere (London, 1604), a mock-almanac written under the pseudonym of Adam Evesdropper:

A peece of a Vnicornes Horne can helpe any man but a Cuckold, whereby that ould moth-eaten Prouerbe is verified, which sayes, One mans meate, is another mans poyson: For if he should take it downe, he would thinke it woulde breede more Hornes within him.
     in contemporary English:
A piece of unicorn’s horn can help any man but a cuckold, whereby that old moth-eaten proverb is verified, which says, ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’. For if he should take it down, he would think it would breed more horns within him.

But the proverb is first attested a few years earlier only, about 1576, in the autobiography of the English composer Thomas Whythorne (circa 1528-1596):

Þat which iz on bodies meat iz an oþerz poizon.

The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (circa 94-circa 55 BC) had expressed the very same idea in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things):

Ut quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum.
That which to some is food, to others is rank poison.

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