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?

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  1. Emilie DeShon says:

    Do you know the origins of “When in Rome, do as the Romans do’”, or just simply, “When in Rome”?

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  2. Ewout says:

    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.
    Thanks!

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  3. Jim Steele says:

    I’d like to know the origin of the phrase “Give it the old college try”.

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  4. Sully says:

    “Hotter than a cattywompus” – +10 coolpoints if you can successfully explain what a cattywompus is.

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  5. Ian Kemmish says:

    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.

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  6. Mantonat says:

    Any idea as to where the phrase “couch potato” originated?

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  7. Luckyangel1 says:

    Cram it in the Boot?

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  8. Peter says:

    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.

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