Be as poor as a church mouse

Pascal TréguerFrench/English, literature, religion, United Kingdom & Irelandanimals, dictionaries, James Howell, medicine, phrases, Rabelais, vegetal, Yorkshire


woodwork in Easingwold Parish Church – Diocese of York Robert Thompson, the Kilburn craftsman, invariably carved a little mouse on his work. photograph: Visit Easingwold



The phrase as poor as a church mouse means extremely poor.

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It is first recorded in The royadanh mục a comedy (1682), by the English author Thomas D’Urfey (1653-1723):

’Gad if he threatens me aren, I’ll take the Law of him; I know how to khuyến mãi with such Tories as himself; I’ll hoist him into Westminster-Hall with a wet finger, and so drill him from Court lớn Court, till he’s as poor as a Church-Mouse, or an honest Attorney.

In his bilingual dictionary Dictionnaire royal, françois et anglois, published in 1702, Abel Boyer translated the phrase as pauvre comme un rat d’église (= poor as a church rat).

The French phrase was more usually gueux comme un rat d’église. It is found for example in Dictionnaire universel (1690), by Antoine Furetière.

As an adjective sầu, gueux (feminine gueuse) means indigent, who has been reduced lớn begging.

Earlier, in 1659, the Anglo-Welsh historian và political writer James Howell (1594?-1666) had mentioned the phrase as hungry as a Church-mouse in Παροιμιογραϕια <Paroimiographia>: Proverbs, or, Old sayed sawes & adages in English, or the Saxon toung, Italian, French and Spanish.

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Another expression related khổng lồ the church was a churchyard cough, meaning a cough that is likely lớn terminate in death. It was a reference to the fact that graveyards were often located next to churches.

In A New Dictionary French và English (1677), Guy Miège translated the French expression la toux du cimetière (= the graveyard cough) as the churchyard cough.

In Le quart livre des faicts et dicts héroïques du bon Pantagruel (1552), the French satirist François Rabelais (circa 1494-1553) wrote of la male toux au poulmon (= the bad cough in the lung), which the English author và translator Peter Anthony Motteux (1663-1718) rendered in 1693 as a Church yard Cough in the Lungs.

But the usual French equivalent of a churchyard cough was une toux qui sent le sapin (= a cough that smells of fir), because coffins were often made of fir wood.

The French expression il sent le sapin (= he smells of fir), meaning he has one foot in the grave, is now rarely used. The more usual ça sent le sapin (= it smells of fir) is now employed lớn mean I can smell trouble, there’s something fishy going on.