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Who Said It?

There’s a bug in my computer, she has a spotless reputation, don’t budge an inch. We hear these expressions every day, but where do they come from? Some are from everyday people, others from literary giants like Shakespeare. Here are the stories behind a few.

Moth taped to computer log book.
Bug Found at Harvard.1

There Is a Bug in My Computer. There really was. Back in the early days of computing a moth disrupted a computer at Harvard when it got into an electro-mechanical relay inside. The technician who discovered the problem taped the dead insect to his log book and wrote “first actual case of bug being found.”

A colleague, computer pioneer Grace Hopper, thought this was hilarious and whenever someone else had a computer problem asked if they too had a bug. The saying stuck. The log book page and bug are at the Smithsonian.2

Amalie Materna as Brunhilde.
Soprano from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.3

It Ain’t Over Till the Fat Lady Sings. Everyone knows Yogi Berra coined the phrase “it ain’t over till it's over.” But what about the version with the fat lady?

A number of celebrated opera sopranos have been chubby and a famous operatic ending is the female solo at the end of Wagner’s four opera Ring Cycle. So patrons who are getting fidgety in their seats know the end is near when the “fat lady” starts her famous aria.

The phrase first appeared in the Dallas Morning News’ account of a basketball tournament where Texas A&M rallied to tie Texas Tech. Someone said “this … is going to be a tight one after all” and according to the news report was answered “Right, the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”4

William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, Source of Many Popular Sayings.5

Spotless Reputation. Something we all aspire to, but seldom achieve or deserve.

The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Richard II, where Mowbray is accused of treason and challenges his accuser to a duel. King Richard tries to broker reconciliation, but Mowbray refuses saying “The purest treasure mortal times afford Is spotless reputation … Mine honour is my life; both grow in one: Take honour from me, and my life is done.”6

Richard halts the duel and banishes both men from England. Mowbray reportedly dies crusading in the Holy Land. Like many who “doth protest too much,”7 he in fact was guilty of some of the charges against him.

Have Seen Better Days. You might say the old clunker in your driveway has seen better days. The first known use of this phrase is in the play Sir Thomas More, where More says “Having seen better days, [I] now know the lack Of glory …”8 Given that More went from being Lord High Chancellor to being beheaded, he certainly knew whereof he spoke.

Rider on white elephant.
White Eephant.9

White Elephant. We have all had white elephants — gas-guzzlers too expensive to drive or gifts that take up space but are seldom used. What do they have to do with pachyderms?

Well there really are white elephants, and in parts of Southeast Asia they are considered holy and reserved for royalty. Traditionally owners of white elephants have been expected to spend lavishly on their upkeep.

Story is that kings of Siam gave white elephants to courtiers who had displeased them, thereby imposing the burden of upkeep on the recipients. Thus we use the phrase to describe things that are costly to maintain but of little useful value.

Oh, and won’t “budge an inch” comes from the opening lines of The Taming of the Shrew, where drunken Christopher Sly refuses to leave a bar when asked. He says “I’ll not budge an inch” and then falls asleep.10

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  1. Image from National Museum of American History web site.
  2. National Museum of American History web site.
  3. Amalie Materna as Brünhilde in 1876. Image from Wikipedia.
  4. Shapiro, Fred (editor). The Yale Book of Quotations, pp. 133-34. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2006.
  5. Engraving by Martin Droeshout from title page of Shakespeare First Folio in the collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library via Wikipedia.
  6. Shakespeare, Richard II, Act I, Scene 1, Lines 184-89. On-line at Folger Shakespeare Library.
  7. Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, Line 254. On-line at Folger Shakespeare Library.
  8. Sir Thomas More, Act 4, Scene 4, Lines 81-2. Authorship is uncertain. The play appears to have been a collaborative effort; some believe a few pages were revised by Shakespeare.
  9. Watercolor (1855) by Colesworthy Grant of a white elephant in Burma. Image from Wikipedia.
  10. Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, Induction, Scene 1, Line 14. On-line at Folger Shakespeare Library.

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Updated June 4, 2016.