Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘American’

Talk Is Cheap

Posted by Admin 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.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Pandora’s Box

Posted by Admin on October 7, 2010

When someone opens a “Pandora’s box” it means they have started a series of events that will result in a number of unexpected problems.  The phrase is based on an old Greek story in which a woman named Pandora opened a box containing all the troubles the world has experienced

In the original story, Zeus — the king of the Greek gods — gave Pandora a box as a gift but with strict instructions that she never open the box no matter how tempted she may be to do so.  In time, curiosity got the better of her and she opened the box just a little to sneak a peek inside.  Once opened, however, all of the box’s contents spilled out, these being all of the evils of the world.  According to legend, the only thing remaining in Pandora’s box was Hope.

On April 21, 1803 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush in which he stated:

It is my opinion that the man in California does not value Liberty, may be lacking in a conscience, and has opened a Pandora’s Box that will eventually bite him in the ass.

During a debate at the Paris School of Medicine in 1699, Louis X!V’s court physician, Fagon delivered an eloquent speech about nicotine addiction, describing tobacco as fatal yet irresistible habit.

Who is the rash man that first tasted a poison that is more dangerous than hemlock, deadlier than opium? When he opened his snuff-box, did he not know that he was opening Pandora’s box, from which would spring a thousand ills, one worse than another? Assuredly, when we try it for the first time, we feel an uneasiness that tells us that we have taken poison.

However, the first use of the phrase goes back more than 500 years.  Dutch Renaissance philosopher and theologian, Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) who wrote on ecclesiastic subjects as well as those of general human interest published a book, “Adagia” in 1500.   The book contained a number of idioms and adages including two of his own: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” and “Pandora’s box.”

Posted in Idioms from the 16th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »