Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Talk Is Cheap

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 19, 2010

The phrase “talk is cheap” is actually a shortened version of at least two other commonly used American idioms —  “talk is cheap but it takes money to buy whisky”  and “talk is cheap but  it takes money to buy a farm.” 

The phrase means that it’s easier for someone to say that he or she will do something than to actually do it.  In its earlier incarnations an example was provided to assist with internalizing that message.

An article headling in the Portsmouth Times published on August 21, 1958 carried the headline:  “United Nations: Talk Is Cheap.”  The story was about another skirmish in the Middle East and reported in part:

Those who have criticized the United Nations for doing nothing but talk can be thankful there has been a place to talk, which is cheap and much to the preferred over armed conflict, which is costly.

Years earlier, on October 2, 1926 in the Gridley Herald and the Lyon County Reporter — just two of several newspapers who carried the same Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company Bell System advertisement, the focus was on talk being cheap. It was a quirky yet effective advertisement with a quaint story that stated:

Talk is cheap — but it takes money to buy a farm!” Many a school yard argument of boyhood days has been ended with this homely bit of philosophy.  For the American telephone user, talk is truly cheap — cheaper than anywhere else in the world.  But it takes money to keep his telephone service cheap and to make it ever and ever cheaper.

Bell was pushing their motto of “one policy, one system, universal service.’  What’s interesting about this is that it implied that the phrase “talk is cheap but it takes money to buy a farm” went back at least one generation, to when the decision makers in the home and business worlds were merely school children.

Indeed, the L.A. Times printed an article in July 23, 1896 wherein a news story reported:

It is that talk is cheap, but that it takes votes to elect a President. The Detroit Journal calls the platform adopted at the Chicago convention “a platform of cranks, by cranks, for cranks.”

The earliest date for publication of the phrase “talk is cheap” is found in the Chicago Daily Tribune on November 21, 1891. 

Although no one can say on what date exactly Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum said “talk is cheap until you hire a lawyer” but it’s believed it was some time after 1856, when the Jerome Clock Company of East Bridgeport in Connecticut —  the company in which Barnum had invested heavily — declared bankruptcy.  P.T. Barnum lost all the money he had invested into, and loaned to, the company which was a sizeable amount by then.  For P.T. Barnum, this began four very long — and expensive — years of litigation and public humiliation.

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2 Responses to “Talk Is Cheap”

  1. […] The etymology of the phrase “talk is cheap” dates back to at least 1891 and may have been uttered by P.T. Barnum as early as 1856. […]

  2. […] The etymology of the phrase “talk is cheap” dates back to at least 1891 and may have been uttered by P.T. Barnum as early as 1856. […]

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