Are you curious about the expression 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'? Would you like to know what it means? Then you're in the right place. In this article, you'll learn the meaning behind this popular idiom, where it comes from, and how to use it.
If you just want the short version, here it is:
This saying perfectly exemplifies how idioms can't be interpreted literally. We are not talking about having actual birds in our hands here. Looking at the individual words doesn't really give you a sense of what the sentence is supposed to mean.
Imagine, for example, that a friend wants to start a new business; to do so, she would need to quit her stable job.
You might say to her:
Are you sure you want to take that risk, considering you don't have any savings? What if the business doesn't work out? A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.
Now, of course, there are different schools of thought on this. Some people like to take risks and believe if you don't gamble every now and then, you'll never achieve your dreams. But on the other hand, making reckless decisions regularly can lead you to lose everything. So perhaps there's a happy middle somewhere.
People sometimes use this idiom with slight variations in wording while maintaining the same essential meaning. These variations often arise in informal speech and writing, and then they just stick.
Here are some of them:
The idiom "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" is of ancient origin and has been used in various forms in different cultures throughout history. The phrase can also be found in Latin, where it was known as:
plus valet in manibus avis unica quam dupla silvis.
A bird in the hand is better than two in the forest.
Some say it could date back all the way to the 7th century BCE in The Story of Ahikar, which is an ancient Near Eastern text containing a collection of proverbs, sayings, and wisdom literature attributed to Ahiqar, a figure from Assyrian and Babylonian folklore. Depending on the source, the quote varies slightly.
Here are two of them:
A sparrow in thy hand is better than a thousand sparrows flying.
Better is a sparrow held tight in the hand than a thousand birds flying about in the air.
It wasn't until much later that it began being used in literature written in the English language. The first appearance might have been in John Capgrave's 1450 hagiography The Life of St. Katherine:
It is more sekyr a byrd in your fest, Than to haue three in the sky a-boue.
Hugh Rhodes was an English author and is credited with using this variant of the idiom in his work titled The Boke of Nurture, which was published in 1577. It is a text on manners and etiquette, and it contains various proverbs and pieces of advice, including this variant of the proverb:
Better one byrde in hande than ten in the wood.
In the same century, John Heywood, an English playwright and epigrammatist, is known for using the phrase "Better one byrde in hande than ten in the wood" in his work A Dialogue Conteynyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue, which was published in 1546.
Fun fact! There's a Pennsylvania town named Bird-in-Hand, founded in 1734. This gives us some indication that the idiom was at least known by that time and possibly even already popular back then.
Now we've covered the idiom's meaning and its possible origins, here are some examples of it being used in a sentence.
She was offered a job with a higher salary at a different organization, but she decided to stay with her current employer because she believed that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Rather than selling his small but profitable business to pursue a riskier venture, he chose to hold onto what he had, recognizing that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Despite the allure of a bigger house, they decided to stay in their current home because they believed that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
In the world of investing, it's important to remember that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it's often better to stick with a reliable investment strategy.
The temptation to trade his reliable car for a more expensive model was strong, but he reminded himself that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush and decided to keep his current vehicle.
The coach encouraged the team to focus on their current winning streak rather than thinking about future games, emphasizing that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
She wanted to sell her house and move to a new place, but she remembered that prices were sky-high in the city, and that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush.
Despite the allure of a higher-paying job offer from another company, he decided to remain loyal to his current employer, believing that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
When presented with a choice between two potential business partners, he opted for the one with a proven track record, adhering to the principle that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
The wise investor knows that market speculation can be risky, and they often adhere to the belief that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush when making financial decisions.
With English being such a rich language, there's always more than one way to say something. 'Make a mountain out of a molehill' is no exception.
Here are just some of the other ways you can say it:
So there you have it. If you have a friend who is thinking of taking a huge risk and might lose what they have, you can remind them that 'A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.'
Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!