There is a well known proverb,
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
However, I have discovered that the earliest English version of this proverb according to phrases.org.uk is found in John Capgrave’s The Life of St Katharine of Alexandria, 1450:
“It is more sekyr [certain] a byrd in your fest, Than to haue three in the sky a‐boue.”
John Heywood’s 1546 glossary quotes it as:
Better one byrde in hande than ten in the wood.
The 7th century Aramaic Story of Ahikar has text that modern translations render as:
Better is a sparrow held tight in the hand than a thousand birds flying about in the air.
Etymonline’s entry for bird includes a quote from circa 1530:
A byrde yn honde ys better than three yn the wode.
Which is the same number as the quote from 1450.
Yet I have only ever heard of there being two birds in the bush. I was not aware there was any variation in the number of birds.
- When is the first recorded use of two birds come about, and
- Why has this version become so prevalent?
The only reason I can think of is for it to be printed and widely circulated – is there any proof of this?
There have always been “two birds in the bush”
I did not find any references that showed there ever being more than two birds, possibly nestling, in a shrub. However, some claim that the version with which we are most familiar first appeared in the English translation of The Second Part of the History of the Valorous and Witty Knight – Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha printed in 1620
It may bee so (quoth Don Quixote) but what saies Teresa? Teresa bids mee make sure worke with you, and that wee may have lesse saying, and more doing, for great sayers are small doers. A bird in the hand, is worth two in the bush. And I say, a womans advice is but slender, yet he that refuseth it, is a madman. I say so too (quoth Don Quixote🙂 But say (friend Sancho) proceede, for to day thou speakest preciously.
Yet, I was fortunate enough to find an earlier version of the proverb, from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, 1611; just sixty-five years after John Heywood’s 1546 “Better one byrde in hande than ten in the wood.”
Better one bird in the hand then two in the bush.
Its religious connotations became apparent in later works such as The Workes of John Boys, Doctor in Divinitie and Deane of Canterburie printed in 1622
A good man is like a good tree, that will bring forth fruit in due season. Hope deferred is the fainting of the heart ; one bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; in giving of almes, bis dat qui citò dat, is a better rule than Serò Sed Seriò [Latin for "Late, but in Earnest.".]:
bis dat qui cito dat is Latin for “he gives twice who gives promptly; payment rendered promptly is worth twice as much”
And perhaps we have found the key as to why the proverb version with two birds gained popularity, first in rural England, then among the highly educated. It could be that “two” took its inspiration from the Latin Proverb, cited above.
In Remaines Concerning Brittaine: But Especially England, and the Inhabitants thereof…, 1629, the adjective “better” reappears
One bird in hand, is better than two in the bush
Its author, the historian, celebrated topographer and herald William Camden, first published his work in 1605. Subsequent editions following his death in 1623 are said to be unreliable; however, this 1629 publication contains the well-established variant “two birds”. Interestingly, there seems to be a sequel
One beateth the bush, another catcheth the bird.
A later version is found in the Fast Sermons to Parliament, Vol 14, 1644
The following is an excerpt from a combination of snippets
As we are so swayed by sense we are all the present, counting one bird in the hand more worth then [sic] two in the bush, though it be that bush of Moses, which burned, and was not consumed, and all thorough the good will of him that dwelt in that bush, which turned to a forme of prayer ; that is, though we have Gods assurance our thorny perplexities wherein we are involved, and stick for the present, as did that Ramme which Abraham offered up, Gods wise and gracious providence will at length entricate us out of them, and set us at liberty, they shall not consume us, yet we faint, and call out […]
You have spoken reasonably, but yet as they say,
One birde in the hande, is worth two in the bush
More bird numbers
According to A Dictionary of American Proverbs, published by Oxford University Press in 1992, the following are recent variants typically found in American English. A couple are quite amusing.
(a) A bird in a cage is worth two in a bush. (b) A bird in the hand is worth a flock in the sagebrush. (c) A bird in the hand is worth a hundred flying. (d) A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush. (e) A bird in the hand is worth ten in the bush. (f) A bird in the hand is worth what it will bring. (g) A bird in the sack is worth two on the wing. (h) A bird on the platter is worth two in the hand. (i) A girl had in bed is worth two in the car. (j) One bird in the cage is worth two in the bush