Quotes Uncovered: Forgiveness, Permission, and Awesomeness
Each week, I’ve been 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. Here is the latest round.
Fritz Gheen asked:
Who is the Stuart in Stuart’s Law of Retroaction: It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
I have never heard this associated with a Stuart. It is often attributed to pioneer computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, famous in etymological circles as the pseudo-coiner of the computer “bug.” The earliest I have found it credited to Hopper is in 1984, but “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission” appears earlier in Arthur Bloch, Murphy’s Law Book Two (1980). Can any of you Google Books / Google News / Newspaperarchive jockeys out there find any versions before 1980?
Nina Gilbert asked:
How and when did the word “awesome” become so trivial and ubiquitous? I wonder if a TV character used it, and then it exploded – first to teenagers, and then to other demographics. OED cites start around 1980, but they’re not first uses. The Official Preppy Handbook, for example, already defines “awesome” as “terrific, great” in 1980.
It is a privilege to respond to the great Nina Gilbert. Nina is a music teacher at The Webb Schools, Claremont, California, and was a stalwart of the late, lamented Stumpers listserve (now continuing in a diminished form as Project Wombat). Nina, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1989) had this to say:
The use of _awesome_ as a generalized term of approval is relatively recent … _Awesome_ has been part of the standard hyperbole of sports broadcasting and writing for several years. It may have been popularized by professional football broadcases; when _great_ came to be applied freely to plays and players of average to good quality, _awesome_ was rushed in to supply the idea of being better than average. The use of the word in sportswriting is not quite so recent as you might imagine … Such use is, however, far from limited to the world of sports. Howard 1984 says that preppies favor the word. … we do have evidence of its use in the speech of young people … This use, which appears to be chiefly oral, often attracts the intensifier _totally_.
Webster’s goes on to speculate that the decline in the use of the word _awful_ in its meaning of “inspiring awe” contributed to the use of _awesome_ to mean “inspiring awe,” but that _awesome_ in this sense is now following a similar path to the one _awful_ did a century ago.
Glossolalia Black asked:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It is attributed to Plato on this little thing I have up in my office, but I was told by a friend that it wasn’t him.”
Glossolalia, this sounds anachronistic for Plato by almost 2500 years. I haven’t researched it, but I invite the aforementioned Google Books / Google News / Newspaperarchive jockeys to see how far back they can trace this one.
Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?