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It ain’t over till the fat lady sings

Q From Caroline Francis Carney: Do you know the origin of the expression It’s not over until the fat lady sings? I believe that it’s a reference to opera. My friend Paul credits this saying to Yogi Berra in reference to a baseball game. Who is right?

A Some versions of this modern American proverb do refer to opera, so many performances of which seem to end with a set-piece aria by a well-built soprano, but its recorded appearances are mainly connected with sport, so much so that some people are sure that is its true origin.

Commentators do often say the phrase to remind people that it’s the final result that matters, often in a spirit of reassurance to the supporters of the losing team. It has been suggested that it was the brainchild of the San Antonio TV sports editor Dan Cook, who famously used it during a televised basketball game in May 1978. It’s probably not one of Yogi Berra’s phrases, though it has the same sense and much of the style of his “It ain’t over till it’s over”.

But we now know that Cook didn’t invent it. Fred Shapiro has found and published an example in the Yale Book of Quotations which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on 10 March 1976. This is the full quote:

Despite his obvious allegiance to the Red Raiders, Texas Tech sports information director Ralph Carpenter was the picture of professional objectivity when the Aggies rallied for a 72-72 tie late in the SWC tournament finals. “Hey, Ralph,” said Bill Morgan (Southwest Conference information director), “this ... is going to be a tight one after all.” “Right,” said Ralph. “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

In the same newspaper on 26 November 2006, Steve Blow followed up the discovery by contacting Mr Morgan about the incident: “Bill vividly remembers the comment and the uproar it caused throughout the press box. He always assumed it was coined on the spot. ‘Oh, yeah, it was vintage Carpenter. He was one of the world’s funniest guys,’ said Bill, a contender for that title himself.”

These comparatively recent sports’ associations disguise the fact that it is actually a rather older expression, which occurs in several forms: It ain’t over till the fat lady sings, The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings, or Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings.

This last version appears in a 1976 booklet by Fabia Rue Smith and Charles Rayford Smith entitled Southern Words and Sayings. Ralph Keyes wrote a book with the title Nice Guys Finish Seventh in 1992 in which he says that several informants recalled hearing the expression for decades before it suddenly became nationally known in 1978. The use of church here suggests that its origin didn’t lie either in opera or sport. It may even be a proverbial Southern expression.

Page created 21 Aug. 1999
Last updated 2 Dec. 2006

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Last modified: 2 December 2006.