Who Said It?
There’s a bug in my computer, she has a spotless reputation, don’t budge an inch — these are expressions we hear 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.
There Is a Bug in My Computer. There once really was. Back in the early days of computing, an electro-mechanical computer at Harvard stopped functioning when a moth got trapped by a relay inside. The technician who discovered the problem taped the dead insect to his log book and noted “first actual case of bug being found.”
Computer pioneer Grace Hopper found his entry hilarious. Whenever someone else had a computer problem, she asked if they too had a bug. The saying stuck. The log book page and bug are at the Smithsonian.2
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. According to the news report, someone said “Right, the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings”4 in reply to a comment that the game was going to be tight.
Spotless Reputation. Something we all aspire to, but seldom achieve or deserve.
The phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Richard II. Mowbray is accused of treason and challenges his accuser to a duel. King Richard tries to effect 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. Like many who “doth protest too much,”7 Mowbray in fact was guilty of some of the charges against him.
Have Seen Better Days. The old clunker in your driveway might be said to have 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.
White Elephant. We have all had white elephants — gas-guzzlers too expensive to drive or seldom used gifts that waste space. 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. Owners of white elephants traditionally have been expected to spend lavishly on their upkeep.
Story is that kings of Siam gave white elephants to courtiers who displeased them, thereby burdening the recipients with the cost of upkeep. Thus we use the phrase to describe things that are costly to maintain but of little useful value.
* * * * *
Finally, the phrase won’t “budge an inch” comes from the opening lines of The Taming of the Shrew. Drunken Christopher Sly refuses to leave a bar when asked, protesting “I’ll not budge an inch.” He then promptly falls asleep.10
- Image from National Museum of American History web site.
- National Museum of American History web site.
- Amalie Materna as Brünhilde in 1876. Image from Wikipedia.
- Shapiro, Fred (editor). The Yale Book of Quotations, pp. 133-34. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2006.
- Engraving by Martin Droeshout from title page of Shakespeare First Folio in the collection of Yale’s Beinecke Library via Wikipedia.
- Shakespeare, Richard II, Act I, Scene 1, Lines 184-89. On-line at Folger Shakespeare Library.
- Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, Line 254. On-line at Folger Shakespeare Library.
- 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.
- Watercolor (1855) by Colesworthy Grant of a white elephant in Burma. Image from Wikipedia.
- Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew, Induction, Scene 1, Line 14. On-line at Folger Shakespeare Library.
This article originally appeared in our free semi-monthly newsletter. To receive future issues, please add your name to the subscription list.