Finders Keepers (A Pie of American Language)

(source of photo:

Finders Keepers

By Sakdiyah Ma’ruf

I believe that there’s always a story or even stories behind every phrase or words known to our daily conversation. I also believe that language evolves, some sustain and some vanish. Among those which sustain are myths. The language chosen by history according to Roland Barthes in his article Myth Today. Finders Keepers is one of them.

I first heard ‘finders keepers’ used in a dialogue on early scene of Batman Begins where a little girl took (i’m not so sure) a small piece of rock shaped like an arrow from young Bruce and said’ “finders keepers, Bruce” and the little girl ran. The second time was when I watched an episode of FRIENDS where a boy took a hockey ball which belong to Ross when he left the ball unattended while he saw a doctor for a bruise on his head. When he got back, Ross demanded his ball and the boy said, “Finders Keepers, Loosers Weepers.” The third time was last Sunday when I watched The Penguin of Madagascar. Kowalski, the analyst of the pseudo-secret agent group of penguins said that finders keepers was a motto that goes way back into the 19th century. Only then was my curiosity towards the origin of that phrase began to grow. I began to feel certain that it is an inseparable part of American culture (appears in at least three of American Popular Culture

The phrase basically speaks for itself, when you find something that is unattended, you can claim your possession towards the thing regardless previous owner. This notion of discovery and ownership is the one that I am going to discuss further especially in the American context.

The Narrative of Discovery and Ownership in American History

There are no single American history book (at least not that I know of) began the explanation of America’s past by explaining the life of the native American except for Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. The narrative always starts with the story of the Ice Age when Bering Sea was frozen and as consequence enable group of Asian migrate to the North America around 12.000 B.C. and continue with the “discovery” of the land Columbus in the late 15th century. The narrative then moves to the story of early European settlers coming  to this New World that is definitely “not new” for the native. These settlers claimed their rights of the no man’s land (we can start a whole new discussion about the phrase no man’s land) just like what the phrase imply; Finders Keepers. Now, the question is did they find this land or did they just claim other people’s right.

One of the argument is of course the argument of discovery and other argument is the argument of ownership.

I wanna share an interesting example that we find everyday and that we might miss. Some of us like to go to fast food restaurant and everytime I go to one of those places I saw a caution on the side of the sink that said, “don’t leave your valuables unattended.” While working on this article I began to wonder, why the choice of word is “unattended”? I mean, when I do left something at public place (God forbid) I still have the right to claim my belonging if I return to the place right? Or is it finders keepers and loosers weepers?  Is that the logic that the people of Europe use when they first came to America?

History shows that apparently this is not only the logic of the first settlers but also the post-independent generation of America and most likely the modern generation of America.

Homestead Act is one of two United States federal laws that gave an applicant freehold title to up to 160 acres (65 hectares or one-fourth section) of undeveloped federal land outside the original Thirteen Colonies. The law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title (wikipedia)

This law is one of the example that if you leave your land unattended then it almost instantly mean that you don’t care enough to “develop’ it or to employ it for a better use. Hence, your land is free for grab, or is it?

The Argument of Human Progress and Civilizing Mission

Finders keepers imply further meaning than merely an issue of discovery and ownership. It also comprises issue of maintenance and using the findings for better use. That is why it is called finders keepers instead of finders owner. To keep is to care and to guard something that you save but to own is merely to possess and to have.

This logic of “I can make a better use of what I find” is what I argue as one of the reason why the settlers and the following  generation of Americans feel that they are entitled of what they find as long as they can take care of them and guard them.

Now, the native in early American did not believe in the concept of ownership. They believe that the land is a gift from God for everyone and no one are supposed to claim rights on God’s property. They were not abandoning their land, they just use them to the right amount based on their need and did not intend to “exploit” nature for personal or group benefit. On the other hand, the western mind think that since it is God’s property everyone has the right to “find” it and “keep” it.

Back to the logic of “making a better use,” we all know that one of the claim European use to invade areas outside their countries including North America is human progress and civilization. They believe that they are chosen to introduce technology, religion, and civilization to support human progress and that the native of the land that they invaded are barbarian incapable of carrying the weight of developing human kind. Thus, they choose to claim that they find the “unattended” valuables (including natural resources of the land) and keep them.

Ther are certainlay many further and deeper arguments that can be raised regarding this issue of finding and keeping in relation to human progress as much as questions raised on whether or not “the keeper” actually make a better use of what they “find” or perhaps finders keepers is only myth?

Other question come to my mind is how to relate this argument with the argument of capitalism, imperialism, and the contemporary America.  I believe that once you raised the question you can immediately find the answer within you and I do have several answers to my last question. However, since this article aimed to discuss language so I will end this article for the time being.

So there you have it, a story of a simple phrase (at least one of the version of the story) working as a testament on how language emerge through a complicated power relation and on how languageis the most effective hegemon because it works its way silently through our mind and it shapes our way of thinking without us even realizing it. In terms of analyzing foreign language especially American English, phrases often used in American context of conversation can also serve as a reflection of the culture and way of thinking of its people.***

Sakdiyah Ma’ruf-who will forever owe her interest in language to Prof. Stephanus Djawanai  and his American language and culture class.

Further Consideration:

In Indonesia, we have somewhat similar phrase of Siapa Cepat, Dia Dapat. Is this phrase imply similar power construction as Finders Keepers? What about english phrase First Come, First Serve? And how about Carpe Diem or Seize the Day? Are these phrase connected to one another? If they do, what does this connection tell us about the culture of the world (especially considering that the phrases come from different countries and cutures)?



  1. fifi Said:

    the logic i somewhat get from reading it, is that the no man’s land is something left unattended.
    who left it for those newcomers?
    😀 😀

  2. Erik Said:

    i do agree with you, my friend, that’s one among the so many ways people exercise and prolong their power by means of language. what i regret is why, on my own part, i came to learn about it only very lately. there have been and there will always be many (more) things in our very lives (re)constructable by means of language, and we can now start by being more critical about how we and the powerful around us use language.

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