Contrary to the popular saying, a problem shared is not a problem halved. When you share your problem, two people now have it. In maths we call this doubling. The common perception has been that problems are like restless chickens, which become easier to hold the more friends you have. In truth, they are more like STDs. When you ‘share’ your problem, you are essentially having sex with your friends, and spreading your burden like syphilis.
If it were true that the burden were being halved with each ‘sharing’, then the strain of herpes I picked up from a stranger’s cup in Starbucks wouldn’t be nearly so virulent.
So where does this mistruth come from? Predictably this is an old wives tale, and what if anything do we know about old wives? Well, they were presumably old, and married. And they also spent a lot of time with potatoes.
Consequently, a lot of their sayings are related to potatoes, such as ‘don’t put all your potatoes in one basket, it will be really heavy,’ ‘a potato a day, if thrown, will keep witch doctors away’ and ‘a new broom sweeps clean,’ because as much as they loved potatoes, it would be silly to suggest that all their metaphors concerned them.
Because of housewives’ interaction with potatoes, they became very literal minded, and discovered that everything could be viewed through the starchy lens of their potato-tinted glasses.
It is believed the saying came from Mary Stumpwharf (1825) when she was asked by her friend Pat for a share of her potato, and without thinking, cut it in two. As Pat suckled noisily on her dinner (for she was a woman without teeth), Mary stared thoughtfully at her tat, finally saying, ‘A potato shared is a potato halved, then just get rid of your half, and no more potato. Yay!’
The truth is, what Mary actually discovered was the recipe for ‘Half a Potato,’ which has been interpreted and revised by scholars as a metaphor for problems. It may have lost its vegetable element over time, but a problem shared is not a problem halved, it’s just half a potato.