How many times do you wag your finger and lecture your kids about the perils of keeping up with the Joneses?
Or do you prefer to tell them how the grass always seems greener on the other side, or that it’s better to have a bird in the hand because it’s worth two in the bush?
I’ve used those phrases — and many other expressions like them— time and again on my kids. I know I picked them up from my parents, who probably heard the same money messages from their parents.
But what if your inquisitive 12-year-old asks you: Who are the Joneses? What’s the big deal about green grass? And where did the bird come from anyway?
To those of you given to pithy proverbs to make a point with your kids about money, wouldn’t it be nice to explain their origins and to translate their meanings in a way that fits into your kids’ vocabulary?
There are many websites devoted to phrases, expressions and sayings, and I looked at several of them. Here’s the gospel, or at least some backstories, to a few of those timeless phrases.
▪ “Keeping up with the Joneses.” I counted about a half dozen explanations to one of the most widely recognized phrases. It refers to maintaining an appearance of wealth for the benefit of others. Note carefully that it does not mean you have the wealth.
According to one version, the phrase originated from a comic strip by the same name that debuted about 100 years ago and ran in American newspapers for more than 20 years. The main characters of the strip were obsessed with maintaining a social status equal to that of their well-to-do neighbors, the Jones family.
Another plausable explanation is that the Joneses were a prominent New York family from the mid-1800s who along with other wealthy families built mansions in the Hudson River valley. As the houses became grander and grander, the phenomena was described as “keeping up with the Joneses.”
▪ “The grass is always greener on the other side.” The message here is that people always think others have it better in life, even if it’s not the case.
As for the origins of this proverb, research trace it back to a poet who lived around 43 B.C. and wrote that “the harvest is always richer in another man’s field.”
That sentiment evolved over the ages and was even the title of a song published in the early 1920s called “The Grass Is Always Greener in the Other Fellow’s Yard” by Richard Whiting and Raymond Egan.
▪ “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” What does it mean? It’s better to have a lesser but certain advantage or opportunity than the possibility of one that is worth more but is not so certain. In other words, a sure thing versus no guarantees. This is a statement about risks and rewards.
The roots of this phrase date at least to medieval times and falconry. The “bird in the hand” referred to a falcon, which was certainly worth more than “two in the bush,” or the prey.
▪ “Making money hand over fist.” It suggests speed and the proven ability to pocket a lot of money in short order.
But most online resources trace the origins of “hand over fist” not to financial dealings, but to 18th century nautical terms. For example, a sailor would pull on a rope by making a fist and then reach forward with the other open hand. Thus hand over fist.
I close with one of my favorite pet phrases: “A fool and his money is soon parted.” No explanation is necessary.
What’s your favorite money message? Let me know and I’ll run them in a future column.
Meanwhile, have fun with these.