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Earlier versions of this well-known proverb, according to “writingexplained.org”, include:

A Latin proverb cited by Erasmus of Rotterdam was translated into English by Richard Taverner in 1545, as:

  • “The corne in an other mans ground semeth euer more fertyll and plentifull then doth oure own.” (The corn in another man’s ground seems ever more fertile and plentiful than our own does.)

The poet Ovid takes this further, saying in his “Art of Love” (1 BC) that

  • the harvest is always richer in another man’s field.”

But, apparently, as far as the current English version is concerned:

this idiom has been popular since at least the early 1900’s, evidenced by the fact that a song recorded in 1924 by Raymond B. Egan and Richard A. Whiting carried its wording, “The Grass is Always Greener in the Other Fellow’s Yard.”

One often suggested origin of the current version is:

It is speculated that the expression came from the habit of cattle of grazing through the fence on the grass of the adjacent field, or escaping from one pasture to another through a broken fence line, in search of new grass to eat.(www.idioms.online)

and curiously the same proverb, with almost the same wording, is present also in other languages such as French, Italian, and even in Japanese.

Questions:

  • Where does the English proverb comes from? Did it originate in England or was it “imported” from a foreign language?

  • When do the first English usage instances date back to?

  • Let's not forget Erma Bombeck's The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank. – Hot Licks Jan 3 at 12:46
  • In my ignorance (or innocence) I'd always assumed The grass is always greener on the other side was a direct reference to the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Re the proverb occurring in Japanese, this is very possibly a borrowing: Japan has fully embraced quite a few proverbs from the Western canon, even when they already had perfectly good homegrown equivalents, and the form is so similar here that this could be another such instance. – tmgr Jan 3 at 13:16
  • "exits also in other languages"? "exits"? I think that it should be "exists" but it seems that the Community has rejected my suggestion. – RubioRic Jan 3 at 14:25
  • Your research is complete ... you may be the one to answer this question. – lbf Jan 3 at 14:47
  • @lbf - my research is just the start for a possible complete answer. – user240918 Jan 3 at 15:11
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'The grass is greener' in idiom and proverb dictionaries

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) echoes the observation cited in user240918's question that "the grass is greener" derives from an ancient proverb:

grass is always greener on the other side, the A different situation always seems better than one's own. [Example omitted.]This expression, an ancient proverb, cited by Erasmus in the 15th century, is so well known that it is often shortened.

Ammer doesn't provide a first occurrence date in English for this saying, as she often does for other idiomatic phrases. Gregory Titelman, Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings, second edition (2000) does offer a first occurrence—but it is almost astonishingly late (1959):

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Other people's lives always seem more desirable than our own. We're never satisfied with what we have. The proverb has been traced back to 1545. The original idea can be found in the poetry of Ovid (c.43 b.c.–a.d. c.18): Fertilior seges est alenis semper in agris (The harvest ids always more fruitful in another man's fields"). First attested in the United States in the Bangor Daily News (M[ain]e) (1959) and the New York Times (1959). Variants of this saying include The grass is always greener over the next hill; The grass always looks greener on the other side of the hill; The grass is always greener on the other man's lawn; The grass looks greener on the other side of the pastures; The grass is always greener across the street, etc.

[First cited occurrence:] 1959. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. —New York Times

Martin Manser, The Facts on File Dictionary of Proverbs (2002) agrees with the previous two authorities in judging the expression as "relatively recent" in its current form but ancient in its application:

the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence ... In its current form the proverb is of relatively recent origin, but the sentiment it expresses dates back to ancient times.

Fairly strong support for this consensus view appears from the fact that G.L. Apperson, English Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings: A Historical Dictionary (1929), reprinted as The Wordsworth Dictionary of Proverbs (1993) contains no notice of the proverb. An updated version of Apperson's book, published by Wordsworth in 2006, however, has this entry:

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. {fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris (the harvest is always richer in another's fields) Ovid, Ars Amatoria, I 349} The form of the proverb that is now familiar is not found before the twentieth century, but, as the quotation from Ovid indicates, the sentiment is of very long standing. 1640: G. Herbert, Jacula Prudentum, The apples on the other side of the wall are the sweetest. 1959: H. and M. Williams, in J.C. Trewin, Plays of the Year, XIX 13, (title) The grass is greener..

J.A. Simpson, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs 1982) concurs with the other authorities cited with regard to the 1959 first occurrence of "the grass is greener," but it conveniently includes R. Taverner's 1545 translation of Erasmus's version of Ovid's proverb, as part of Erasmus' Adages:

Fertilior seges est alieno semper in aruo. The corne in an other mans ground semeth euer more fertyll and plentifull then doth oure owne.

Charles Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder & Fred Shapiro, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012) finds a number of much earlier instances of the proverb:

The grass is (looks) greener on the other side of the fence (road). [Earliest two cited occurrences:] 1913 Janesville [{W[isconsin]} Daily Gazette "The breachy cattle evidently think the grass is greener in the next pasture." 1918 Fred R, Jenkins, "Educational Work—A Means to War-Time Efficiency" in Proceedings of the the Second War Convention, National Electric Light Association 41: 347: "When an employee feels that he has been sidetracked, that he would have more opportunities elsewhere, or that the 'grass looks greener on the other side of the fence,' he needs the stimulus represented by a systematic method of training...."


'The grass is greener' in the wild

An Elephind newspaper database search turns up matches for versions of the same "the grass is greener elsewhere" sentiment from even earlier than 1913. From "De Lamar's Opinion: Absolutely Foolish to Start for the Klondyke Now," in the Salt Lake [City, Utah] Herald (August 5, 1897):

The New York World of last Sunday published the following letter from Captain J. R. De Lamar:

"I have just arrived in New York from Nevada and the Mercur mines of Utah, and I must say that I am surprised at the wonderful interest the Klondyke placer mines have excited everywhere. I never saw anything like it.

"The mines are wonderful, but probably not so wonderful as represented. Grass is always greener, you know, further away. I have seen experienced men from the Klondyke region—men I know—and I have thoroughly probed the facts about the country.

And from an untitled item in the [Des Moines, Iowa] Wallaces' Farmer (July 12, 1907):

An Illinois correspondent wants to know what he can do to break a fifteen-year-old mare of the habit of reaching over the fence when out in the pasture. He says there seems enough inside the pasture and not enough to reach for on the outside. He tied a thin hood over her face to stop the habit, but which also prevented her from seeing and defending herself when necessary . He says the mare is poor in flesh. It is an old saying that the grass is always greener outside the pasture than in it. People have this same habit of wanting to get into the other fellow's pasture, because they think it is better than their own, although it not unfrequently happens that, as with the case of this mare, the grass is better inside the fence than out.

Note that the 1907 instance describes the expression as "an old saying."


Conclusions

Everyone agrees that Ovid and (1500 years later) Erasmus voiced a sentiment very similar to "the grass always looks greener elsewhere." But aside from George Herbert's very similar observation 1640 regarding the sweetness of apples on the far side of a wall, few examples have come forward that demonstrate continuity between Ovid and Erasmus and the twentieth-century English proverb about greener grass. It is therefore hard to say whether the earliest occurrences of "the grass is always greener" in English represent a rediscovery/translation of old Latin wisdom or a homely independent coinage addressing a seemingly universal human trait.

In any event, it seems clear that at least some people were speaking (and writing) figuratively about how much greener the grass looks at some distance from where one stands more than a century ago—including instances from 1897 and 1907.

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