The oldest English-language use of the proverb has been found in Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie's (1837–1919) novel, Mrs. Dymond (1885), in a slightly different form:
- "I don't suppose even Caron could tell you the difference between material and spiritual," said Max, shrugging his shoulders. "He certainly doesn't practise his precepts, but I suppose the Patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn. But these very elementary principles are apt to clash with the leisure of the cultivated classes. Will Mr. Bagginal now produce his ticket—the result of favour and the unjust sub-division of spiritual environments?" said Du Parc, with a smile.
The proverb has been attributed to many others, but no good evidence has been produced.