The Future Is Not What It Used To Be

Yogi Berra? Paul Valéry? Laura Riding? Robert Graves? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am interested in a saying that is both humorous and shrewd:

The future is not what it used to be.

I have seen several other versions of the saying. The phrasing that uses the word “ain’t” is often credited to Yogi Berra:

The future ain’t what it used to be.
The future’s not what it was.
The future isn’t what it used to be.
The future is no longer what it used to be.

Who should be credited with this witty and sometimes rueful comment?

Quote Investigator: The baseball great Yogi Berra writing in his 1998 volume “The Yogi Book” did claim that he used this expression. A precise timeframe was not given, but the saying was accompanied with a picture from 1974. Yogi also offered an interpretation: 1

I just meant that times are different. Not necessarily better or worse. Just different.

The earliest evidence of this saying located by QI was published in 1937 in a journal called “Epilogue” within an article titled “From a Private Correspondence on Reality” by Laura Riding and Robert Graves. The authors who were both prominent literary figures asserted that the perception of the future had changed: 2

The human mind has reached the end of temporal progress: the future is not what it used to be, and people talk with less and less progenitive self-precipitation into the future, and behave with more and more fatally decisive immediacy. The future, that is, contains nothing but scientific development. It is an involuntary spending and manipulation of physical forces, empty of consciousness: it no longer matters.

Also in 1937 the poet and philosopher Paul Valéry wrote a version of the phrase in French in the essay “Notre Destin et Les Lettres”. In 1948 his words were translated and published in English in “Our Destiny and Literature” which was part of the collection “Reflections on the World Today”. Here is the French statement and the English translation with additional context: 3

L’avenir est comme le reste: il n’est plus ce qu’il était

The future, like everything else, is no longer quite what it used to be. By that I mean we can no longer think of it with any confidence in our inductions.

The above Valéry citation is listed in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1939 an article in “The Journal of Philosophy” discussed perceptions of the future. An aphoristic statement about this theme was made, but the phrasing was rather different: 4

Our future is what we can predict; but what will be in its actuality can not be foreseen—at least by men. Just as the past was not what it has become, so the future is not what it will become.

In 1959 a journalist named Steve Ellingson deployed the saying without attribution: 5

If the cost-of-living continues to rise, a dollar saved may well he another 50c lost. With this thought in mind, it’s easy to see that the future is no longer what it used to be.

In 1962 Abram L. Sachar, president of Brandeis University, presented a talk with a title based on the expression: 6

His talk, “The Future Is Not What it Used to Be,” will be the first program in the 15th annual forum series sponsored by the temple Men’s club.

In 1973 an English professor named Gary Goshgarian who taught a course about science fiction literature was profiled in the Boston Globe newspaper. A version of the saying using the word “ain’t” was ascribed to him: 7

As Captain Gary says, guys, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

The quotation credited to Paul Valéry had more than one version. For example, in 1975 a collection of quotes from the Reader’s Digest Association listed the following: 8

The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be. —Paul Valéry

In conclusion, Paul Valéry, Laura Riding, and Robert Graves used the saying by 1937. Based on current evidence Laura Riding and Robert Graves deployed the phrase in English first. Yogi Berra and others used the expression in later years.

(In Memoriam: Many thanks to my brother Stephen for pointing out the value of researching Yogi-isms.)

Notes:

  1. 1998, “The Yogi Book: I really didn’t say everything I said!” by Yogi Berra, Page 118 -119, Workman Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1937 Spring, Epilogue: A Critical Summary, Volume III, Journal edited by Laura Riding and Robert Graves, Article: “From a Private Correspondence on Reality” by Laura Riding and Robert Graves, Reprinted in: 2001, “Essays from ‘Epilogue’ 1935-1937” by Laura Riding, Robert Graves, Edited by Mark Jacobs, Start Page 163, Quote Page 170, Carcanet Press Limited, Manchester, United Kingdom. (Verified on paper in 2001 reprint)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro Page 90, Column 2, Yale University Press, New Haven.(Verified on paper)
  4. 1939 August 17, The Journal of Philosophy, On Understanding the History of Philosophy by John Herman Randall, Jr., Start Page 460, Quote Page 463, Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc. (JSTOR) link
  5. 1959 September 5, Milwaukee Sentinel, Phone Shelf Can Store Everything by Steve Ellingson, Part 3, Page 2, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  6. 1962 February 22, Chicago Tribune, Brandeis U.’s Head to Speak in Gary Forum, Page S3, Column 2,Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  7. 1973 April 29, Boston Globe, “Hey, Percy Bysshe, WAKE UP – It’s Captain Gary Time!” by Susan Trausch, Start Page B34, Quote Page B41, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  8. 1975, The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, Section: future, Quote Page 2035, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, N.Y.(Verified with scans)