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"THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE": AN AMERICAN PROVERB OF DISCONTENT

WOLFGANG MIEDER

"THE GRASS IS ALWAYS GREENER ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE": AN AMERICAN PROVERB OF DISCONTENT*

One of the most frequent questions that people ask of a paremiologist is, without doubt, how old a particular proverb might be. While the origin of some proverbs has been studied in detailed diachronic essays or monographs,1 very little is actually known about the precise historical dissemination of most proverbs. In fact, each and every proverb would need a very careful investigation in order to establish its source and traditional use over time. For such ancient and internationally known proverbs as "Big fish eat little fish"2 this becomes a complex project going back to classical antiquity and involving numerous foreign languages. But establishing the possible beginning of a more recent proverb is equally challenging, as can be seen from the following attempt to determine the origin and continued use of the American proverb "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence".

This proverb certainly belongs to one of the most commonly used proverbs in the English language. This should not be surprising since it expresses the only too human idea of discontent, envy, and jealousy in a metaphor which is easily understood. Interestingly enough, the proverb is also literally true as has been demonstrated by James Pomerantz in a scientific article on "'The Grass is always Greener': An Ecological Analysis of an Old Aphorism" (1983).3 This scholar proves that optical and perceptual laws alone will make the grass at a distance look greener to the human eye than the blades of grass perpendicular to the ground. The "truth" of this metaphorical proverb can, of course, also be observed often enough in the countryside when a cow or a horse is trying to get at that juicy green grass just on the other side of the fence. And since people are equally dissatisfied with their lot in life, it should not surprise anyone that a modern psychologist has spoken of "the 'greener grass' phenomenon"4 by which modern individuals continually evaluate supposedly better alternatives for themselves.

The proverb thus expresses a basic behavioral truth in a rather universal metaphor - after all, grass and fences aren't exactly anything new. This should imply that the proverb belongs to those ancient bits of wisdom that everybody knows, but when one consults the standard paremiographical works, it comes as quite a surprise to see that the earliest recorded reference stems from 1957!5 This appears absurd, and there are bound to be native American speakers who will instantly claim that they have heard or even used this proverb long before the 1950's. But that claim needs to be proven in light of what Archer Taylor has called the apparent "incompleteness of collections of proverbs".6 The following remarks will present a few precursors to this proverb as well as some synchronic variants, and it will be established that the "grass is always greener" proverb is at least a bit older than proverb collections would have us believe. In addition to tracing the lexicographical history of the proverb it will also be studied in its traditional and innovative use as the title of novels, plays, and magazine or newspaper articles. Its iconographic depiction in cartoons, caricatures, comic strips, postcards, and photographs will also be analyzed with a special emphasis on modern parodies.

The renowned Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (1970) does not even have a separate entry for the proverb "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence". Instead it lists the Latin proverb "Fertilior seges est alieno semper in arvo" cited by Erasmus of Rotterdam which was published in English translation by Richard Taverner in 1545 as "The corne in an other mans ground semeth euer more fertyll and plentifull then doth oure owne".7 While this proverb gained some currency in the 16th and 17th centuries, it is not in common use any longer. But the editor of this proverb collection is of the opinion that it might be an early precursor of the "grass is always greener" proverb, for he lists Hugh and Margaret Williams' play with the title The Grass is Greener (1959) with the addition of "[on] the other side of the hedge" as a modern variant.8 While the idea of the two proverbs is clearly similar, it is certainly questionable to consider the "grass" text as a variant of the earlier proverb.9

After all, there are some other proverbs with the same meaning that come to mind as possible precursors as well. There is the proverb "Hills are (look) green (blue) far away" that was recorded as early as 1887 and continues to be in use in a number of variants to the present day.10 The same is true for the proverb "Distant pastures always look greener"11 which dates back at least to 1936. The proverb "Distant fields look greener"12 was recorded by field researchers between 1945 and 1980, and Muriel Hughes registered the proverb "Cows prefer the grass on the other side of the fence"13 in 1960 in Vermont. These texts contain at least some elements of the proverb under discussion, as for example the color green, the grass, or the fence. While the first text predates the earliest citation of the "grass is always greener" proverb, all the others are actually of a later date and could be considered variants of that very proverb.




The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

It shouldn't be too surprising to learn that journalists also find the proverb or parts of it very suitable for effective headlines. What follows are 26 newspaper and magazine titles which appeared in the press during the past twenty-five years. It will be noticed once again that the journalists vary their headlines in any way they wish, always counting on the fact that their readers will juxtapose them with the traditional and longer proverb:

 

1967 Ronald Steel, "Greener Grass on the Other Side," New Republic (April 8, 1967), pp. 27-29.

Steel concludes his book review with the statement that the political left should have "the maturity to realize that the grass is not necessarily greener simply because it's on 'the other side'."

1978 Anon., "Where the Grass Is Greener. Potent Home-grown Pot Blossoms into a New Cash Crop," Time (June 12, 1978), p. 22.

 

1979 Robert and Jane Coles, "The Grass Isn't Greener, Just the Money," New York Times (April 10, 1979), p. A19.

 

1979 Jessica Chereskin, "Blacks in Suburbia: The Grass Isn't Always Greener," Psychology Today, 13, no. 5 (1979), pp. 25-26.

 

1980 Anon., "Where the Grass Is Greener ..." New York Times (August 14, 1980), p. A22.

Article deals with policy on marijuana.

1982 Francine Kiefer, "Is Grass Greener in Money Funds? Boston Bank Takes Steps to Find Out," Christian Science Monitor (February 2, 1982), p. B3.

The article begins with the following contextualization of the proverb: "Sometimes the only way to tell whether the grass is really greener on the other side is to hop over the fence and try it out. To many thrifts and savings-and-loans, the grass that money market mutual funds stand on looks lush. Since the arrival of money funds on the scene, these bankers have been sadly watching their customers leave the patchy grazing grounds of a thrift account's fixed interest rate for the healthier green of a high-yielding money fund."

1982 Anastasia Toufexis, "Grass Was Never Greener. In an Economy of Lows, Many Profit from Others' Highs," Time (August 9, 1982), p. 15.

Article deals with marijuana growing in California.

1983 Mike Causey, "The Grass Isn't Greener for Federal Workers," Washington Post (January 31, 1983), p. B2.

The article contains the contextualized statement that "outside Washington, a lot of the government's top-paid scientists, engineers and experts have been finding greener pastures in industry."

1983 Jack Kemp, "A Floating Dollar Costs Us Jobs. Sound money would make the grass greener right here," Washington Post (May 15, 1983), p. B5.

It might be noticed in such headlines referring to money that the word "grass" does, of course, have the secondary meaning of cash.

1983 Lois Marie, "Don't Let 'Greener' Grass Fool You Into a Divorce," Los Angeles Times (August 15, 1983), section V, pp. 1 and 6.

 

1985 Phil Gailey, "The Senate's Grass Often Looks Greener," New York Times (June 14, 1985), p. A14.

Article commenting on House members who plan to run for the Senate.

1986 David Clark Scott, "What the grass-is-greener-overseas market analysts are saying," Christian Science Monitor (August 4, 1986), p. 16.

 

1986 Kenneth L. Fisher, "Greener Grass?" Forbes (December 15, 1986), p. 210.

Article claims that overseas investing is not as potentially profitable as is portrayed by some analysts.

1987 John Heins, "The Grass Looks Greener," Forbes (January 26, 1987), p. 50.

Article deals with venture capitalists going into leveraged buyouts.

1987 John Heins, "But the Grass Looked Greener over There," Forbes (April 27, 1987), p. 54.

Article points out that Litton Industries is finding life after restructuring pretty disappointing.

1987 Emily T. Smith, "This Grass Is Always Greener - and Needs Less Mowing," Business Week (June 8, 1987), p. 96.

Article reports on Zoysia grass for better lawns, and the headline presents a marvelous literal interpretation of the proverb.

1987 Trish Hall, "Restaurants Are Finding Greener Grass In Suburbs," New York Times (October 21, 1987), p. C1.

 

1988 Gene Koretz, "For U.S. Investors, the Grass Was Greener Overseas Last Year," Business Week (January 25, 1988), p. 24.

 

1988 Lisa Gubernick, "Is the Grass Really Greener?" Forbes (March 7, 1988), p. 49.

Article reports that Lorimar-Telepictures Corp. clearly knows how to make money in TV, but success in moviemaking has so far eluded it.

1988 Courtland Milloy, "The Grass Is Greener On Other Side of Screen," Washington Post (October 4, 1988), p. B3.

Article deals with the appreciation of live sports in opposition to television coverage.

1990 Sarajane Brittis, "For the Elderly Overseas, Grass Is No Greener," New York Times (April 24, 1990), p. A22.

Article points put that elderly Americans are not alone in confronting problems with social welfare and medical care.

1990 J. Kim Kaplan, "No Fence, but the Grass Is Greener," Agricultural Research (April 1990), pp. 13-14.

Article discusses the use of Zoysia grass for greener and healthier lawns.

1990 John Rockwell, "Seeking Greener Grass Beyond Familiar Fences," New York Times (May 27, 1990), p. H19.

Article discusses the repertory changes of classical pianists.

1991 Steven Holmes, "When Grass Looks Greener On This Side of the Fence," New York Times (April 21, 1991), p. E6.

Article points out the alarming tendency of Americans to think that things are a mess except in their own neighborhoods.

1991 Robert L. Simison, "Babes in Europeland. Fenced in at Home, Regional Firms See Greener Grass in Europe," (Wall Street Journal (October 4, 1991), p. R5.

Article explains how Bell telecommunication companies are looking for European markets.

1991 Matt Sutkoski, "Where the Grass is Greener: Anywhere but Here," Vermont Times (November 28, 1991), p. 5.

Article mentions that New England's recession has some businesses considering a move.

It is amazing to see how frequently journalists cite allusions to this proverb in order to express people's dissatisfactions through a metaphorical headline. They can certainly count on the fact that their readers will have no problems identifying with the presented feeling of positive envy or outright jealousy. The result will be a readership that is emotionalized if not manipulated into a programmed mode of thinking about a particular situation or problem. From regional Vermont newspapers to the sophisticated New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, journalists make effective use of this common proverbial wisdom. It will, of course, also have been noticed from these examples that the word "grass" is interpreted literally to refer to lawns or figuratively to allude to marijuana (or drugs in general) or money and high finances. This multisemanticity of the noun "grass" adds to the polyfunctionality of the proverb and its variants, while the journalists can count on their readers to understand the various puns or wordplays that they are creating for their catchy headlines.

It is perhaps somewhat surprising that the proverb itself is hardly ever repeated in the texts of these articles or the books which carry it as their title. Usually the journalists or literary authors employ the proverb only as a recognizable bit of wisdom which will signal the general theme of envy or dissatisfaction for what is to follow. Repeating it once or several times throughout the text might make the message too obvious or didactic for the educated reader. But this is not to say that the proverb does not find its use in the context of a journalistic article or a book, as has already been indicated for some of the books and articles above. A few interesting contextualized references will certainly show that the proverb in its written use has not been reduced to mere attention getting headlines. In Carl Sandburg's long poem "Good Morning, America" (1928), for example, one finds a whole section of American proverbial speech that also includes the line "The grass is longer in the backyard".35 It is to be assumed that Sandburg might have known the 1924 proverb song and that he is already citing a variant here or simply playing with the proverb himself. A wonderful wordplay with the proverb is certainly included in Brian Aldiss' novel Space, Time and Nathaniel (1957), where the author comments to the reader that "possibly you recall the old saying about the chlorophyll being greener in someone else's grass"36 before having his main character get out of his uncomfortable bed to pay the science-fiction Priestess Colinette a visit. It must also be mentioned that Hugh and Margaret Williams' British comedy The Grass is Greener (1959) referred to above does include the statement that "The grass is always greener the other side of the hedge."37 This might just be a typically English variant if one realizes that this country has plenty of hedges instead of fences. In any case, even in Great Britain the proverb in its standard form has long been solidly established, and this is probably also the case for some of the other English speaking countries such as Canada, Australia, etc.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Three additional examples of the proverb being used in comic strips all stem from the "Crock" series by Bill Rechin & Don Wilder. In the first Crock leads his soldiers through the desert and wants to establish camp for the night. Hawthorne wants to look for a better spot to which Crock responds "Surely you're not one who thinks the grass is always greener on the other side."63 The irony is, of course, that the viewer can see a luscious oasis just beyond a small hill. In 1988 the two artists returned to two similar interpretations of the proverb. In the one the soldier Hawthrone complains that "You've been marching us around lost in this desert for twenty years." To this Crock answers with the wonderful understatement "The grass is always greener, isn't it, Hawthrone?"64 And in the third comic strip Crock and a soldier are actually looking from a watch tower in the desert into a luxurious place with a swimming pool. Once again Crock's comment is the absurd reiteration of the standard proverb: "Be content where you are, Vern ... The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence."65 The irony of this statement is almost unbearable, and one wonders how long Crock's troops or people in general will be willing to take such proverbial excuses for an answer.

The inescapability from the truth of this proverb is also clearly illustrated in a last cartoon. Here a horse is standing at the fence of a totally grazed field looking across to the luscious grass of the neighboring field and thinking "It's definitely greener!"66 The horse and its thought speak like a modern fable to the viewer. Everybody knows that the proverb "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" and its numerous variants are warning signals against the overemphasis of envy and dissatisfaction. And yet, it appears to belong to human nature that a healthy dose of wishful thinking and dreaming is part of human existence that keeps people going instead of despairing without any hope. The relatively new American proverb of the grass being always greener on the other side of the fence does express a universally experienced human character trait, and it is for this reason that it caught on so quickly after its first appearance in a popular song from 1924. Its wisdom might be challenged in modern parodies and anti-proverbs, but it will be a rare individual indeed for whom the proverb "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" will not be a true description from time to time.


Notes:

*Previously published in Mieder (ed.) Wise Words. Essays on the Proverb, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York, 1994, pp. 515-542

1 See the many studies in Wolfgang Mieder, International Bibliography of Explanatory Essays on Individual Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions (Bern: Peter Lang, 1977), and in W. Mieder, International Proverb Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography. 2 vols. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982 and 1990).

2 See Wolfgang Mieder, "History and Interpretation of a Proverb about Human Nature: 'Big Fish Eat Little Fish'," in W. Mieder, Tradition and Innovation in Folk Literature (Hanover/New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1987), pp. 178-228 and pp. 259-268 (notes).

3 See James R. Pomerantz, "'The Grass is always Greener': An Ecological Analysis of an Old Aphorism," Perception, 12 (1983), 501-502.

4 See Joseph Schneider, "The 'Greener Grass' Phenomenon: Differential Effects of a Work Context Alternative on Organizational Participation and Withdrawal Intentions," Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16 (1976), 308-333. Folklorist Dan Ben-Amos speaks of this phenomenon regarding anthropologists and literary scholars for whom "folklore became the exotic topic, the green grass on the other side of the fence, to which they were attracted but which, alas, was not in their own domain" at the beginning of his seminal article on "Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context," Journal of American Folklore, 84 (1971), 3. I woe this reference to my friend and colleague Jan H. Brunvand.

5 See Bartlett Jere Whiting, Modern Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings (Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 268.

6 Archer Taylor commented on the regrettable incompleteness of proverb collections in his short article "How Nearly Complete Are the Collections of Proverbs?" Proverbium, no. 14 (1969), 369-371.

7 F.P. Wilson, The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 560. For classical variants of this Latin proverb see Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases (New York: Macmillan, 1948), p. 1835 (no. 3). See also Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor/Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1950), p. 495 (N115).

8 See Wilson (note 7), p. 560. The date of 1956 listed by Wilson should be 1959.

9 It is interesting to note that John A. Simpson continues to link the two proverbs in his The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 100-101. He does, however, cite both proverbs under the heading of "The GRASS is always greener on the other side of the fence".

10 See G.L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases London: J.M. Dent, 1929; (rpt. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1969), p. 302; Stevenson (see note 7), pp. 591-592 (no. 8); Wilson (note 7), p. 373; Simpson (note 9), p. 23; Whiting (note 5), p. 307 (H212); and Wolfgang Mieder, Stewart A. Kingsbury, and Kelsie B. Harder, A Dictionary of American Proverbs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 300. Two American variants are "How green are fields afar off" and "Far off fields are greenest" cited by Margaret Hardie, "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions Current in the United States East of the Missouri and North of the Ohio Rivers," American Speech, 4 (1929), 461-472 (p. 463, no. 82); and Emma L. Snapp, "Proverbial Lore in Nebraska," University of Nebraska Studies in Language, Literature, and Criticism, 13 (1933), 51-112 (p. 72, no. 9).

11 See Whiting (note 5), p. 475 (P49); and Mieder et al. (note 10), p. 451.

12 See Mieder et al. (note 10), p. 207.

13 Muriel J. Hughes, "Vermont Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings," Vermont History, 28 (1960), 113-142 and 200-230 (see p. 124); see also Mieder et al. (note 10), p. 122.

 

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 1:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

66 San Angelo Standard (December 29, 1983), p. 10A.

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405
USA





 
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