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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?

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    In general, you might find that questions like this are better answered on our sister site over at English Language Learners.
    – Matt
    Sep 18, 2013 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, 2013 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. Sep 18, 2013 at 9:55
  • Douglas Adams FTW. Sep 18, 2013 at 10:16
  • A minor grammatical mistake in the question: 'I begun reading' rather than 'I began reading' (past tense) or 'I have begun reading' (auxiliary + past participle). Still, having read the answers, I'm not sure how much incomprehension was down to unfamiliar language, as the poster assumed, and how much to unfamiliar concepts or signifieds. Aug 10, 2023 at 13:38

5 Answers 5

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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.

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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. Sep 18, 2013 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? :) Sep 18, 2013 at 0:51
  • I'll have a bad time reading this.
    – Saturn
    Sep 18, 2013 at 0:53
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    @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, 2013 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. Sep 18, 2013 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.

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  • Good example of the busy father.... Sep 18, 2013 at 10:02
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This answer may not help the original questioner, but I noticed some things in the answers that I felt should be elaborated on. Cultural context, not just English language, may be helpful in understanding the quoted passage, which is in my opinion one of Adams's funniest and also most profound.

It was written for the second episode of the radio series, first broadcast on 15 March 1978, nationwide in the UK. So unlike some newcomers to the book, the audience might already have an idea of the outlandish and surreal SF tone of the programme. Over the course of the series for example we learn that humans are only the third most intelligent species of Earth, and that ballpoint pens are sentient and have a home planet. So the supposition that pound notes (which were at the time green) might themselves potentially be capable of happiness or unhappiness is part of what makes the punchline work. However, it still works to an extent without that absurd element or expectation. The narrator or 'Book' is a sardonic voice and only one of the characters providing an alien and dislocated interpretation of everyday reality. It might seem absurd to someone from another culture or another planet that rituals and strict rules around tokens and abstract numbers are imbued with such importance. Of course people aren't unhappy because money is unhappy as the question asks, but they behave as if they were.

The accepted answer mentions some relationships between the problem of individual unhappiness and money, but it may have had a particular resonance in the 1970s (when I first heard it). The belief in economists as gurus had been germinating for some decades, since Keynes perhaps, but in my opinion it was not as dominant in national consciousness as it is today; Adams at other points skewers religious, philosophical and self-help claims about ethics and happiness that may correspondingly be taken less seriously nowadays. Solutions 'largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper' that were publicly discussed at the time would have notably included monetarism and incomes policies and theories underlying them, as well as looked to popular Marxist thinking of the time, other social programmes and utopias and 'growthism', the increasing priority given to 'economic growth', that was known from the 1960s and at the time prefigured neoliberalism.

In essence the gag is at the expense of economics as a subject and at political economists, poking fun at those powerful parts of the Establishment that are more concerned with, say the cost and financing of a project (or Marxian 'exchange value'), than whether it's any good for ape descendants or not. So while the passage is even more relevant today, it may have become harder to understand.

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  • Interpretation of passages from literary texts is within the scope of this site only in so far as it focuses on some specific characteristics of the language that is used in them. General discussion of the aims and merits of literary texts, and their social and historical background is outside the scope of this site, unless it is shown to be directly relevant to explaining some specific aspect of the language used.
    – jsw29
    Aug 11, 2023 at 21:53
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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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  • Sorry, I'm not seeing it. I would never interpret "movement" in this context this way, even as wordplay. Jan 28, 2023 at 19:37

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