By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The more the merrier’ is a famous phrase, but what does it mean? And where – and when – did this saying originate? And what do its origins have to do with a heart-wrenching medieval lament for a dead child?
Let’s take a closer look at ‘The more the merrier’, to understand both its meaning (and what’s so curious about that meaning in light of another well-known proverb) and its origins in a work of literature written over seven-hundred years ago.
‘The more the merrier’: phrase meaning
The meaning of this popular phrase can be summarised as follows: the more people there are, the ‘merrier’ or happier the gathering will be.
So for instance, if two people are having a conversation and a friend of their asks if she can join them, the two other friends may well tell her, ‘Sure! The more the merrier.’
The curious thing about this phrase, as with many proverbial sayings, is that there is a similarly famous saying which carries the opposite meaning. So whereas ‘the more the merrier’ welcomes more people to a gathering, ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’ warns that more people can actually be a bad thing.
This is true of other ‘proverbial pairs’, too: consider how ‘look before you leap’ and ‘he who hesitates is lost’ point in entirely opposite directions.
‘The more the merrier’: phrase origin
‘The more the merrier’ is one of many immortal proverbs to appear in John Heywood’s glossary, Proverbes (1546).
Heywood was a remarkable figure: he entertained the courts of four English monarchs (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I) as one of the first named English playwrights; he was related to both Sir Thomas More and the poet John Donne; and he narrowly avoided being hanged for taking part in a conspiracy against Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He ended up dying in exile in Belgium, where he had fled after an anti-Catholic act was passed in England.
And in 1546, Heywood published a book of proverbs, including the now well-known sayings ‘out of sight, out of mind’, ‘two heads are better than one’, ‘all’s well that ends well’, and, as we’ve already seen, ‘the more the merrier’.
What is curious about Heywood’s use of the phrase is that the full sentence gives a rather different inflection to its meaning: ‘The mo the merier, we all daie here and se. Ye but the fewer the better fare (saied he).’
In other words: ‘all day we hear and see people saying, “the more the merrier”. Yeah, but the fewer people there are, the better the food is.’ The more hungry mouths which turn up at some gathering expecting to be fed, the less food there will be for each person.
So what is interesting about Heywood’s quoting of the saying is that it was clearly already in widespread circulation in 1546, for people ‘all daie’ to ‘here and se’ the phrase spoken and written.
So the phrase is even older than Heywood. We have to go back to the late fourteenth century and to one of the great medieval poems written in Middle English to find the earliest written use of the phrase ‘the more the merrier’.
Pearl is one of the jewels in the crown of medieval English poetry: a real gem of a poem. Part-elegy, part dream-vision (a popular kind of poem in medieval literature), and part Christian allegory, the poem is by an unknown author who may or may not have been (but on balance probably was) the same writer who gave us Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
This medieval dream-vision is an elegy for a dead child, a daughter who died at just two years of age. She is the ‘pearl’ of the poem’s title, and the poet uses this image for her throughout. The poem is narrated by the grieving parent of the lost child, who tells the reader of how he lost his pearl in a garden. After he falls asleep, his spirit is transported to a bright and wonderful land.
And it is in Pearl that we find the earliest known instance of ‘the more the merrier’:
Thys Jerusalem Lombe hade never pechche
Of other huee bot quyt jolyf
That mot ne masklle moght on streche,
For wolle quyte so ronk and ryf.
Forthy uche saule that hade never teche
Is to that Lombe a worthyly wyf,
And thagh uch day a store He feche
Among uus commes nouther strot ne stryf,
Bot uchon enlé we wolde were fyf.
The mo the myryer, so God me blesse!
In compayny gret our luf con thryf,
In honour more and never the lesse.