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Article Archive >> Community

Reflections! A bird in the hand...

Reflections!
A bird in the hand...
By William L. Bulla

Recently I saw a TV commercial using an old parable, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." I can remember having heard that even when I was a kid, and that 's been a many years ago. I began to wonder about its origin, so I began did some research. I not only found its source, but also many other parables we use daily, which we have no idea when, where and how they became everyday phrases in our language.
Nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language, and the element that best shows a society's values and beliefs is its proverbs.
A proverb is defined as "a short saying that expresses some traditionally held truth; a short simple story that teaches a moral lesson." The word is derived from the Greek word parabole, which means "a comparison".
The "bird in the hand" parable actually refers back to medieval falconry where a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and worth more than two in the bush (the prey). That has translated to mean 'it's better to have a small real advantage that the possibility of a greater one.' The first recognition of the expression in print in its currently used form is found in John Ray's A Handbook of Proverbs, 1660.
My research revealed hundreds of expressions I have heard, and used:
"A fool and his money are soon parted"
"A woman's place is in the home"
"A new broom sweeps clean"
"Beggars should not be choosers"
"Better late than never"
"Birds of a feather flock together"
"Don't bite the hand that feeds you"
These are sayings we hear day in and day out.
How about, "Every cloud has a silver lining"? That originated in the writings of John Milton in 1634. Or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This is the Golden Rule as found in the Bible Matthew 7:12. It is also found in many other religions as one of the earliest notions known to man on the basis of the ethical system on which societies have been built.
Did you know "Fight fire with fire" was created by Shakespeare in 1595? Or, did you know "Good fences make good neighbors", referred to re-establishing good relations with people who have had a disagreement, came from the mid-17th century and was used by Robert Frost in his 1914 poem "Mending Walls"? Were you aware the proverb, "Don't give a sucker an even break" was generally associated with W.C. Fields, who made a film of this name in 1943, and had used it as an ad-lib line in the stage production of the musical "Poppy" in 1923?
In 1900, President Theodore Roosevelt is accredited with a proverb advising caution and non-aggression backed up with the ability to do violence if required in his statement "Speak softly and carry a big stick." And we can conjure up visions of a blacksmith at his forge, hammering a glowing piece of iron into a predetermined shape. It was his way of acting decisively and taking the opportunity to "Strike while the iron is hot."
Then there are numerous others including:
"Put your best foot forward"
"Share and share alike"
"Spare the rod and spoil the child"
"Silence is golden"
"Never look a gift horse in the mouth"
"No rest for the wicked"
"Keep your chin up"
"Let the punishment fit the crime"
"Honesty is the best policy"
"Love thy neighbor as thy self"
"Honesty is the best policy" ... and many, many more. Did you ever have any idea there were so many proverbs, which gave you advice on how to live your life? I didn't until I started this article.
One I remember is "There's no such thing as a free lunch." I understood that meant you don't get something for nothing, but I didn't know how it came about. I found out it was not a handout of food to the poor and hungry, It denoted free food that American saloon keepers used to attract drinkers. Free lunches were provided to anyone who bought a drink. Actually the saloon customers ended up paying for the food in the price of the drink, Therefore, "There's no such thing as a free lunch."
Well, that takes me to another proverb. It's the one that came from the last line of "Gone With The Wind", Scarlet O'Hara's day had not worked out for her so she commented ... "tomorrow is another day". So, I am hoping you have enjoyed my column on proverbs, if not ... well, in the words of Scarlet O'Hara, tomorrow is another day.

William L. Bulla is a freelance writer residing in Washington County.

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