randi (randi2204) wrote in fandom_grammar,

Say What?: “Better the devil you know” and “The grass is always greener”

In today’s installment of Say What?, let’s take a look at a couple of proverbs that talk a little about what one has and what one wants, with some help from the folks on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Magnificent Seven.

Better the devil you know

This is a kind of shorthand for the full phrase, which is better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. The second half of the phrase is often left unsaid because it’s simply understood. Indeed, in her song of the same name, Kylie Minogue sings “Better the devil you know,” and leaves the rest to our imagination.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the devil here began existence as a woman. Translated by Taverner from Erasmus’s Adages, 48 (1539):

Nota res mala, optima. An eyul thynge knowen is best. It is good kepyng of a shrew that a man knoweth.

What Taverner and Erasmus are advising is that it’s better for a man to keep that sharp-tongued woman he’s married, rather than risk finding another who might be even worse.

Less than 50 years later, the mention of “evil” becomes more prominent in Rowland’s translation of “The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities”, a Spanish novel.

The old prouerbe: Better is the euill knowne, than the good which is yet to knowe.

This is an interesting change, emphasizing that what is not yet known might be good instead of evil.

Of course, it’s a short step from “evil” to “devil.”  In 1857 Trollope replaced the original “shrew” and the subsequent “evil” with the more-often-heard “devil” in his work “Barchester Towers” (II, vii):

‘Better the d—you know than the d—you don’t know,’ is an old saying … but the bishop has not yet realized the truth of it.

So Trollope’s bishop has not yet discovered that it’s best to deal with the situation one has at hand, no matter how bad it is, rather than attempt to make a change. Yes, that change might turn out to be for the better … but it could also take a turn the other way, leaving one even worse off than before. 

The Buffy crew gives us an example in their inimitable style:

Lying on the ground, flat on his back, Xander stared up at the black-clad figure that had just rescued him from being decapitated. “Okay, am I seeing things or did Spike just save us from becoming the sacrifice du jour?”

Kneeling beside him, Giles worked at the ropes binding his hands. “Indeed he did,” he replied, raising his voice slightly to cover Spike’s muttered “Pillock.” “I asked him to watch our backs tonight—well, paid him, actually.”

“But … Spike? Evil vampire?”

“Xander, this is quite definitely a case of better the devil you know.”

The grass is always greener

Again, this shortened version of the phrase stands for the whole, which is the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Sometimes you may hear it as the grass is always greener on the other side, without mention of the fence. Again, the latter half of the phrase is understood.

The origin of this phrase goes all the way back to Ovid, in his Ars Amatoria (i, 349):

Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris. (The harvest is always more fruitful in another man's fields.)

This was in the long-ago time before lawns and the subtle game of having a finer, greener one than one’s neighbor, but the sentiment is the same. No matter how good one’s own field (or lawn) looks, somehow, it’s never quite as good as the neighbor’s. Of course, it’s easy to see all the shortcomings of one’s own situation and not even notice that the neighbor may have issues of his or her own.

The Magnificent Seven are no strangers to this proverb:

JD slouched in his chair, staring a little resentfully at Buck, who was leaving the saloon with a laughing woman on his arm. “How can Buck just … talk to a girl for a couple of minutes and get her to go off with him like that? I’d probably have to hold them at gunpoint to even get them to notice me!”

Josiah considered the question carefully, resting his book on the table. “Well, JD, I reckon that’s because Buck’s …”

But JD clearly didn’t want to hear the answer; he stood, pushing away from the table, and peered out into the evening. “Whatever he’s got, I wish I had it.”

On hearing that, Josiah shook his head. JD didn’t see that all the bed-hopping Buck did meant he didn’t have a deeper, more lasting relationship with any one of those women. In a low voice, so JD wouldn’t actually hear him, he said, “The grass is always greener on the other side, son.”

The human race is rarely content with what it has. There’s always some flaw with what we have, or someone else seems to be better off, even if that’s not really true. Nor is this adage strictly limited to humanity, either, as cows and sheep are often seen poking their heads through fences to get to the greener grass on the other side.

What one has and what one wants are oftentimes quite different. Spock of Vulcan had some wise words regarding these desires. “After a time,” he said, “you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”


Tags: author:randi2204, language:colloquial

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