Quotes Uncovered: When Is It Over?

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent research.

Ken Hirsch commented:

“Try, try, try again” comes from the song “Perseverance; or Try Again” which appeared in William Edward Hickson‘s 1836 book The Singing Master.

You can see the full lyrics in this 1837 journal.

Thanks, Ken! This is a nice improvement on the citation I have in The Yale Book of Quotations.

Alan J. Barnes asked:

Can you trace the origins of “It’s not over until the Fat Lady sings.”?

The YBQ, which attempts to trace the origins of all famous quotations, has this entry:

The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.

Ralph Carpenter, Quoted in Dallas Morning News, Mar. 10, 1976. Carpenter was sports information director at Texas Tech University when he uttered this line during a basketball game with Texas A&M. Sportscaster Dan Cook used the expression in a television broadcast, May 10, 1978, before a Washington Bullets – San Antonio Spurs playoff basketball game (Cook has usually been credited as the originator). “The fat lady” was then picked up and popularized by Washington coach Dick Motta. However, a 1976 booklet, Southern Words and Sayings by Fabia Rue Smith and Charles Rayford Smith, includes the saying “Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings,” suggesting an ultimate origin in Southern proverbial lore. Ralph Keyes, Nice Guys Finish Seventh (1992), records the recollections of several Southerners remembering similar phrases used as early as the 1950s.”

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

Emilie DeShon

Do you know the origins of "When in Rome, do as the Romans do'", or just simply, "When in Rome"?


Who was the first to say these famous words: "Nothing is certain except for death and taxes." Some sources mention Ben Franklin, others say Mark Twain or Daniel Defoe.

Jim Steele

I'd like to know the origin of the phrase "Give it the old college try".


"Hotter than a cattywompus" - +10 coolpoints if you can successfully explain what a cattywompus is.

Ian Kemmish

I had always been taught that the fat lady quote came from Mark Twain's travels in Germany, along with a description of Parsifal as a man lying on a couch while a procession of people come on and sing at him until he dies.

Then again, I'm fully prepared to believe that that is an urban myth.


Any idea as to where the phrase "couch potato" originated?


Cram it in the Boot?


I always assumed that it was a reference to Opera.
Many of the lead females are quite large (necessary to push out such a volume of music) and the show often finishes with a final aria.
Since it is often in a foreign language and the storylines are minimal to non-existent, the best way for the uninitiated to tell if the opera is finished is when the fat lady sings.


I had heard that "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" was a reference to Ring of the Nibelung, the Wagnerian opera. (an opera of four parts that takes 15 hours to perform in full)


gay as a goose


For years I've been wondering about the origin of the quote (I'm paraphrasing, I may have the details wrong): "The people have spoken, and now they must pay."

Sam Adams

Any idea who originated "he's the kind of person that would give a drowning man a glass of water"?

Rev Spooner perhaps? (just kidding)

Daniel Sanders

Keep up with the Joneses is the psychological fundation of American dream

Mojo Bone

Pretty sure the fat lady was Brunhilde, from Wagner's The Ring Of The Niebelung, but I believe the phrase originated in the late forties, following the appearance of a famous Warner Bros. cartoon featuring Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny; I've heard it attributed to Casey Stengel, but am not surprised if it first appeared in print as part of a sports column.

Cattywompus means cock-eyed, and is possibly a variant of the colloquial "catty-cornered", for cater-corner. I've no Idea why a catty-wompus would be hot, though.

Jack Springman

Hi Fred,

Are you anti-Scottish? Or does the Yale Book of Quotations only recognise American quotes?

I say this because I pointed out in response to your "try, try again" quote that it comes from a speech given by Robert The Bruce to Scottish troops before the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 in which Edward II English army was defeated. You acknowledge Ken's 1836 quote, but fail to acknowledge that legend has that it was actually was first used over 500 years before.


PS I am English not Scottish. But the tale of Robert the Bruce and the spider in the cave, which is where he got the inspiration for the quote, is one that all British children of my generation were brought up on.


In keeping with the theme of fat women, how about the origins of the classic "No Fat Chicks"

George Bohmfalk

"In no time, there's no time."