To signal his reluctant acquiescence to an agreement he previously opposed, Jacob Rees-Mogg could hardly have chosen a better phrase then the time-honoured, homely proverb he wielded: Half a loaf is better than no bread. (Although he might as well have used the roughly equivalent but hardly positive ‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’)
Half a loaf … is a phrase that everyone will know, and one whose meaning is immediately clear.
Which set me thinking two things, linguistically speaking.
How do European languages express a similar idea, if at all?
And how far back does it go in English?
Well, looking at the languages I have some knowledge of (plus help from friends) throws up interesting results – at least according to the dictionaries I consulted.
It proves the truism that when it comes to idioms looking for ‘equivalents’ can be a bit misleading. (Literal translations are given in brackets in what follows.)
In some cases, the equivalent proposed by the dictionaries (Oxford, Collins) is not figurative at all. This applies to German wenig ist besser als gar nichts (‘Little is better than nothing at all’). And Spanish algo es algo or peor es nada (‘Something is something’; ‘Nothing is worse’ i.e. ‘Something is better than nothing’).
But when you get to French, perhaps stereotypically, a foodstuff comes in (avert your gaze, vegetarians/vegans): faute de grives on mange des merles (‘When there are no blackbirds, we eat thrushes’).
Then you get an idiom which has two possible equivalents in English: the Italian meglio un uovo oggi che una gallina domani (‘Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow’, which is really rather more equivalent to ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’). That could be a case of the classic 1 to 2 correspondence between L1 and L2 that often occurs in bilingual dictionaries.
Similarly avian is what is offered for Portuguese: melhor um pássaro na mão do que dois voando (‘Better a bird in the hand than two flying’, i.e. ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’)
A similar proverb exists in Spanish: más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando (‘A bird in the hand is worth a hundred flying’). German also has besser ein Spatz in der Hand als eine Taube auf dem Dach (‘Better a sparrow in the hand than a pigeon on the roof’). And Croatian, rather like German, has bolje vrabac u ruci nego golub na grani (‘A sparrow in hand [is] better than a pigeon on a branch.’)
Finally, Russian has на безрыбье и рак рыба (‘In the absence of fish, a crab is also a fish’. Which has an ‘equivalent’ in English in the less well-known: Better are small fish than an empty dish.)
So, rather tastier and more imaginative images than the boring, doughy, stodgy English one.
How old is the English proverb?
According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, it goes back to 1546: J. Heywood Dialogue Prouerbes Eng. Tongue …For better is halfe a lofe than no bread.
Aphra Behn makes suggestive use of it, according to the OED, in her 1681 play The Rover:
You know the Proverb of the half Loaf, Ariadne, a husband that will deal thee some Love is better than one who will give thee none.
The OED makes Half a loaf… equivalent to ‘something is better than nothing’, which existed in medieval French: mieulx vault aucun bien que neant (c1401, ‘better any good than nothing’).