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“Talk is cheap”: Here’s What It Really Means

“Talk is cheap”: Here’s What It Really Means

Idiomatic expressions play multiple roles in a language. Some become proverbs, passing on hard-earned wisdom to younger generations. After all, knowing is half the battle, and fortune favors the brave.

Other expressions can play multiple roles. On the one hand, they can still have something worthwhile to teach the listener.

But, they can also be used subtly to send across a certain meaning indirectly. For instance, “talk is cheap” is a perfect example.

 

What is the meaning of “talk is cheap”?

The clear meaning of the expression is that it doesn’t cost anyone to say something, and the real difficulty is in doing it. It is another way of saying that something is easier said than done and that plenty of people will talk a big game, but few are willing to back it up. However, “talk is cheap” can also be used in the middle of a conversation to indirectly discredit someone.

For example, if someone you know starts making audacious claims or swears that they will get you the moon and the stars, telling them “talk is cheap” is effectively saying that you doubt what they are saying and that you believe they are filled with hot air. Alternatively, you could just be challenging them, asking them to prove that they aren’t full of hot air.
 

How to use the expression “talk is cheap”

From the above definition, it should be obvious that there are three main ways you can use the proverb “talk is cheap.”
 

As an instructional saying

Just like any other proverb, you can use “talk is cheap” to share common wisdom with someone else. For instance, if your friend is thinking of starting a tech startup and they’re taking your opinion, you might respond with the following.

I think you have a good idea, and it might even succeed.

But, I do have to warn you that talk is cheap. The tech space is very competitive, and almost nine out of every ten tech startups fail. I just want to let you know that if you do this, you’ll have your work cut out for you.
 

Another example would be if your sister was talking about winning next year’s marathon race. You could tell her this.

I love the enthusiasm, but I have to warn you: Talk is cheap. You want to pull that off, it will take you a lot of training, dedication, and even sacrifice.

You might not be able to see your friends as much as you normally do. Are you really willing to go through that?

 

As a way to discredit someone

The other usage is to discredit someone. It is an indirect way of saying that they talk a lot but never back it up.

For example, if a school colleague keeps saying that they are personal friends with Ninja, the popular Twitch streamer, but you don’t believe them and think that they are making it up, you could try to challenge them by saying the following.

You know what, talk is cheap. If you are truly such good friends with Ninja, why don’t you call him on the phone right now? We’ll wait.

You’ll usually give this response when you start feeling sick and tired of someone’s incessant boasting or big talk, especially if you know they’re just doing this to get attention or to make themselves look good.
 

As a means of challenging someone

Occasionally, you’re not certain whether the big talker can back up their words or not, and in these cases, you might choose to challenge them.

You’re basically telling them, “if you want to keep on talking like that, then you’re going to have to prove what you’re saying.”

It has to be clear that this usage isn’t meant to attack the other person or deride them in any way, unlike the usage of discrediting them.

Instead, you are simply raising a gauntlet, inviting the other person to live up to their words.

For example, the following conversation could take place between a son and his mother.

Son: Next year, I am going to be the valedictorian of my class. You’ll see.

Mother: Well, talk is cheap. Show me that you have it in you to be number one, and I’ll personally make sure that you spend the summer in Europe with your cousins. Do we have a deal?

 

What makes talk cheap?

For one thing, it really costs us nothing to make false promises or to say that something is within our reach when it really isn’t. After all, if you say that you run a four-minute mile, do you really think anyone will stop you and fact check you?

Moreover, the supply of people who are willing to talk a big game far exceeds the demand. In other words, very few people are willing to tolerate nonsense.

That said, completing any worthwhile endeavor is difficult. It takes commitment, dedication, and focus, all of which are qualities that are hard to come by.

Even in the world of business, good ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s all about execution.

In fact, Derek Sivers, an American entrepreneur and founder of CD Baby, once wrote, “To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.”

The bottom line is that talking about something doesn’t cost anything, but it doesn’t get anyone anywhere also. It’s all in the execution, in the doing.

 

The origin of the expression “talk is cheap”

Even though we aren’t sure when the proverb first originated, we know that it has been around at least since the 1800s. But, back then, it was longer. In fact, there were many forms. Here are some.

  • Talk is cheap, but it takes money to buy a farm.
  • Talk is cheap, but it takes money to buy whiskey.
  • Talk is cheap until you hire a lawyer.

You’ll notice that even though there are several forms, all these proverbs are basically saying the same thing. And, with time, the second half was omitted, leaving us with the concise “talk is cheap.”

Generally, a lot of proverbs get shortened over time, but while some retain their meaning, others get morphed, sometimes conveying the very opposite meaning of what they were originally meant to say.
 
A classic example of this “blood is thicker than water,” which is used to convey that family is more important than friendships.

However, the original proverb was actually “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” which tells us that the friendships we make in life are stronger than our familial bonds.

 

”Talk is cheap” synonyms

Since talk is cheap, it should come as no surprise to learn that there are many more ways of conveying the notion that action will always take eminence over empty words.

Here are a few ways of saying it.

  • It’s easier said than done
  • You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?
  • If I had a penny for every time someone said …
  • That’ll be the day when …
  • What a likely story

Let’s see these synonyms in action.

You want to become the best violinist in the world?

Well, talk is cheap.

You want to become the best violinist in the world?

That’s easier said than done.

You want to become the best violinist in the world?

You can certainly talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

You want to become the best violinist in the world?

If I had a penny for every time I heard someone say that they would be the best at something, I would never need to work another day in my life.

You want to become the best violinist in the world?

That’ll be the day when you actually commit to something rather than quitting halfway through.

You want to become the best violinist in the world?

What a likely story.