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I begun reading Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

This is one of the initial fragments, emphasis mine:

This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

I don't quite grasp what he intended to say with this last line.

So, sad people were concerned about money: "which is odd because money wasn't the unhappy one". This doesn't make much sense to me.

What is the meaning of this last line?

  • 1
    In general, you might find that questions like this are better answered on our sister site over at English Language Learners. – Matt Sep 18 '13 at 1:42
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    When he wrote that line British money wasn't really green. Pound notes were green with some yellow (maybe that came later), fivers were blue, tenners were brown. I can't even remember what twenties were like in the 70s. Of course dollars are green so perhaps green was just a reasonable choice for a global money colour. – user24964 Sep 18 '13 at 8:27
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    Funnily my first thought on the movement of money was buying beer in the pub (where Ford took Arthur for a last drink). Many people think drinking might solve their actual problems. – András Hummer Sep 18 '13 at 9:55
  • Douglas Adams FTW. – mikhailcazi Sep 18 '13 at 10:16
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No, the line didn't say that 'people were concerned about (for) money'. It said that the solutions advanced to solve people's unhappiness concerned money. In other words, the author is making the comment that the suggestions did not address people directly, but were centred on money, as though money, if properly manipulated, would make people happy.

So, it's the people who're unhappy, but it's money that's receiving the attention, even though money isn't the unhappy party.

So, perhaps the suggestions the author is talking about run along the lines of buying stuff, or becoming more financially secure, etc. Financial gain is being addressed, but not the roots of people's unhappiness.

8

There's an ancient caveat which says that if you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny. The point is, if you don't grasp all the cultural underpinnings being spun around in surprising ways by the joke, you won't be taken by surprise, and surprise is generally the essence of humor. Once you go through the explanation, there's no surprise left.

This statement you are wishing to understand is a joke, pure and simple. It is not something that requires any particular explanation. It's just silliness, just an absurdity. You see, by describing money in an unusual way (small green pieces of paper) Adams catches us off guard. He then says that solutions for happiness often involve money, but he uses the new, unusual term, and then he can say, as if the person making the statement really didn't understand WHY you would talk about small green pieces of paper as a solution to unhappiness, that the pieces of paper aren't unhappy! Isn't it strange to talk about them, if they aren't the unhappy things??

You see how much explanation it takes to make it understood? And you see how it becomes unfunny?

Umm... it's just a joke. :)

(Oh, and by the way, there are other angles on the nature of the humor, but I think this gives you a pretty good idea of how it works. ;)

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    Oh, dear. If you don't see that, then you're going to miss about 97.2 per cent of the humor in Hitchhiker's Guide. It's primarily that it's just much sillier if you say small green pieces of paper. That's all. Silliness. But also importantly, it reflects an irony that the Guide is an observation of non-earthlings who don't share earthly attitudes, and that helps us see the basic humor in things we just take for granted all the time. We don't think about money, but if you stop and think about it, it can seem kind of silly, can't it?? It's satire. – John M. Landsberg Sep 18 '13 at 0:50
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    And I see that my long comment there is now posted in response to a comment that I no longer see posted. And isn't that silly? :) – John M. Landsberg Sep 18 '13 at 0:51
  • I'll have a bad time reading this. – Omega Sep 18 '13 at 0:53
  • @JohnM.Landsberg I suspect - although I am not certain - that the OP is misreading the earlier part of the sentence as meaning "the people who were sad were sad because they thought about money" rather than "the solutions to the people's sadness-without-any-explicitly-stated-cause involved money." I think this interpretation stems from an unfamiliarity with the use of the word 'concerned' to mean 'primarily involved' rather than 'worried about.' Again, though, I'm not certain. – user867 Sep 18 '13 at 3:02
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    @user867 You know, you're right! I think I didn't even grasp the jaw-dropping depth of his confusion. At this point, I can't even imagine him trying to read HG. In fact, I would have to caution him that it would actually be a very bad idea, indeed. Although the words might be intelligible, for the most part, the meaning would be as impenetrable as hieroglyphics, I'll warrant. – John M. Landsberg Sep 18 '13 at 19:38
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I guess he meant that instead of dealing with peoples' unhappiness directly by doing something by the people for the people themselves, most solutions involve moving money around.

The focus shifts from moving humans to moving money. We become remote from the ones we help by inserting the intermediate agent between us, thus lowering the level of personal involvement, whereas sometimes it's the exact thing that is needed to make people happier.

Like.. Sometimes a busy father will spend more time earning more money to give it to his children, whereas they may be much happier if he gave them more of his care and his company, not the latest iPhone model.

  • Good example of the busy father.... – Chan-Ho Suh Sep 18 '13 at 10:02
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To add something I believe is important to this joke onto that which has already been said; Another definition of "moving", especially when referring to people, is to change (especially their emotional state). A film can be moving, it can move you.

In this case, Adams begins by saying "moving money around", leading you to believe he's talking about the physical changing of hands. Then, in the second part, he reveals he was talking about the other definition of "moving" all along.

Hilarity ensues.

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