Quotes Uncovered: If It Ain't Broke…

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.

Lou Nelson asked:

This one would logically not have a traceable attribution.

“There is no end to the amount of things that can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” Anon.

The Yale Book of Quotations spoils the logic by including the following:

“There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit for it.”
Charles Edward Montague, Disenchantment (1922)

RC asked:

“If it ain’t broke… don’t fix it.”

The Yale Book of Quotations cites Bert Lance quoted as saying this by the Washington Post, Dec. 23, 1976. The YBQ notes, however:

Lance popularized this expression, but the Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 1976, printed the following: “If it ain’t broke, let’s don’t fix it,” says Mr. Davant, quoting an old Swedish saying from his home state of Minnesota.


I grew up on the line and my father wasn't even from Minnesota, though he was a mechanic. My mother would complain, 'if it -isn't-, not ain't broke, to which my father would reply, 'goes straight to the point'; his way of complaining about the grammar police.


As an engineer, I'm always fascinated with the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." We engineers want to do the opposite and improve it. Which got me to thinking about how there are quotes and words of wisdom that are the opposites of each other. Such as,

"If not now, when?"

Perhaps you can add an additional feature to your book, quotes that are in opposition to one another.



it seems to me that it would make more sense to say:

"if it ain't broke, don't break it."

Sean Thackrey

Or, a more or less related favorite of mine, "if you got time to do it over, why didn't you have time to do it right in the first place?"

Alastair Herbert

An engineer friend says this is a wise quote when you have to make do with limited resources. Even if you know something isn't right as long as it's still working let it keep going until it doesn't. And it's amazing just how long some things last without undue attention.

As a business strategist it's a dreadful thing to say. It's used to stop change or questioning of the status quo. The business people who use it make the assumption that something isn't broken when in reality they don't know. Many business models have fallen apart because they didn't appear to be broken until it was too late to put them right.

It's the sort of reactive statement posing as erudition but actually used as a substitute for thinking.

David Chowes, New York City

'Be wary of answered prayers.'


It's "number" not "amount."

Eric M. Jones

Back to the subject of "Okay". I searched Google books for a while. Since the search words are digitized from the scanned text, there are hundreds of false leads....but here's one that needs more investigation:

From: (Google "Okay" and date 1796 in advanced book search)

They had captured two British slave ships, with cargoes of Africans, whom they landed on their settlement of Okay, and gave them their liberty. By these means they acquired a reinforcement of men, attached to them forever by every tie of gratitude; and this reinforcement they could not have had, if the motion for the abolition of the slave trade had been agreed to when first proposed.

You have to wonder....


"spending like a man with no arms"

John Roberts

I've heard the "ain't broke don't fix" saying for all of my nearly 60 years, so it must predate Mr. Lance's 1976 usage. The saying is wise as given to those who might ruin something useful through vain tinkering. It is an admonition toward the vanity of the tinkerer.


i think the saying has some implicit (ironic) quotation marks around the "fix" it.

there was supposedly - can't remmeber where i read this, a garage somewhere in middle america that had a sign in thee 1930s saying

"if we can't fix it, it ain't broke"

that is an infinitely more positive, upbeat message. I loathe the sentiment of not wanting to improve things just because they "work". More often than not it is used by people to defend not doing something that is difficult: namely changing something that works now but will soon be overtaken.


Eric M. Jones, -ay is a typical ending for an island name, coming from the old norse -ey (island).

Okay then would be island of Ok, which could mean Island of Yoke (yoke=ok in icelandic/old norse) which incidentally fits the slave theme.


"If it ain't broke, fix it until it is"


"Patience, young grasshopper." I can find the show this came from, but not that this was the actual phrase.


I think I know the origin...but not sure...what do you think?

"if your standing on the edge, your are taking up too much room"


What about "All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians." by Thelonious Monk


Wow, I love that Lou Nelson quote. Good stuff. We impede our progress by being consumed by who gets the credit.



Who first used the term "silver bullet" to mean an ideal solution to a difficult problem?


I saw this on the wall of Condon's repair shop...
"If we can't fix it, we'll set it on fire and make it look like an accident"


Here is a quote or proximate variation of which I have seen ascribed to many different sources. I am curious as to the expression's origins. The expression is to the effect that:

"It works well in practice, but will it work in theory?"