Adage algebra

14 August 2006
8:30 AM

I enjoy comparing sayings between English and Spanish. It’s fun to see the different cultural takes on the same idea, and since I haven’t heard the Spanish cliches all my life they sound less, well, cliche. Where we say someone is between a rock and a hard place, Spanish speakers say that person is entre la pared y la espada, between the wall and the sword.

The other day, when I heard an adage about how what you have now is more valuable than what you could have, it seemed like an invitation to a more literal comparison. In English we say that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. In Spanish they say más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando—a bird in the hand is worth more than a hundred flying. Perhaps a comparison is in order? We could write these two nuggets like this:

1 birdhand = 2 birdsbush
1 birdhand > 100 birdsflying

One of the remarkable things about algebra is that it allows you to extract as much information as possible from the facts that you have. Naturally, I thought of that when I heard the different version of the familiar saying. Why, with a simple substitution, we know more than we used to:

2 birdsbush > 100 birdsflying

After reducing both sides, we arrive at our new adage: a bird in the bush is worth more than 50 flying. Then we check our answer by asking if it makes sense. Sure, if the goal is to get birds in the hand (which I think it is, though I’ve never had one), having them in the bush seems better than having them flying. Who said that numbers and words don’t mix?

On the other hand, some sayings I have heard here are just beyond me and no manipulation is going to fix that. La mal de la lagartija es la mamá es mejor que la hija: “the bad thing about lizards is that the mother is better than the daughter.” I don’t even know where to begin; I’m an old dog, and these tricks are too new for me.