It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings

Lee Arthur? Dick Motta? Dan Cook? Ralph Carpenter? Fred Speck? Bob Pafford? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?

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Dear Quote Investigator: The leading position in an athletic or political contest can dramatically shift during a short period, and sometimes the outcome can be dependent on the final stage of competition. A family of adages employs analogical language to reflect this tension and uncertainty. Here are five examples:

Church ain’t over till they quit singing.
Church isn’t over until the choir stops singing
Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings.
The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
The game isn’t over until the fat lady sings.

Would you please explore the origin of this collection of aphorisms?

Quote Investigator: By 1872 a saying about the length of church services was being used analogically. A report in a Cincinnati, Ohio newspaper discussed incomplete polling data for a U.S. Presidential election and told readers that the fate of candidate Horace Greeley was still uncertain. The report was reprinted in a New Orleans, Louisiana newspaper. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

As long as the organ is playing church is not out. With Indiana and New York Greeley can spare Ohio and Pennsylvania. We see no reason whatever to despair of Greeley’s election.

In 1894 a group of railroad passenger agents expected an additional reduction in the price of a ticket to a popular destination: 2

The impression is still strong among railroad passenger agents that there will be further reductions in the rate to the Washington encampment of the Knights of Pythias.

“Church is never out till the people get through singing,” said one of them this morning, and all of them talk as if they understood the language of this parable.

In 1896 the “New York Tribune” printed the response of a well-known orator named Chauncey M. Depew when he was asked about a presidential nomination race between William McKinley and Governor Levi P. Morton. Depew was a strong supporter of Morton, but new developments pointed to the success of McKinley. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“Do you think the Governor still has a chance?”

“While there is life there is hope. It doesn’t do to count on anything as a certainty until all is over. Church is never out until they stop singing. I admit that Major McKinley looks like the winner, but I am with Morton as long as he is to be considered as a candidate.”

Depew was unhappy that his favorite was not selected. McKinley did win the Republican nomination and ultimately the U.S. presidency.

The following 1913 example from a periodical titled “The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer” was also employed in the domain of politics: 4

There is an old saying that “church is not out ’till the singing’s done,” and with the narrow margin which the Democrats have in the Senate, it is believed that at least the wool and sugar schedules are still in the balance.

Even in 1913 this adage was labelled “old”, and it has continued to circulate up to modern times. Instances were applied to a variety of competitions such as: boat racing in 1952, hockey in 1974, and dominoes in 1975. QI conjectures that the sayings in this family evolved from this early piece of proverbial wisdom.

The terms “opera” and “fat lady” were incorporated into statements by 1976, and three key figures in the sports world all used this adage by 1978: Ralph Carpenter, Dan Cook, and Dick Motta. Currently, the earliest known citation named Carpenter as speaker of this variant saying, and he is the leading candidate for crafter. However, an exploration of provenance that was published in June 1978 named Dan Cook as the creator. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

This article includes some valuable citations located by Fred Shapiro and Barry Popik. Popik’s website has two pertinent entries on this topic here and here.

A few months after the 1913 instance given above the saying reappeared in “The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer”: 5

Whether he can secure the return of enough Democrats to block the plan of the Republicans is problematical, but in any event the political pot will be boiling for the next few days, and the old saying that “church is never out ’till the singing’s all done” is very apropos in this instance.

“The History of United States Army Base Hospital No. 22” was published to preserve the memories of people who had served together in a military hospital within the period spanning 1917 to 1919. The history was released in 1940 when the events were more than two decades in the past. Vivid catch phrases employed by individuals were recalled and recorded for posterity: 6

‘Cholly’ McMahon—”Losers push!” “Church ain’t over till they quit singing.”

In 1937 the National Association of Retail Druggists published a periodical that included a commentary about an upcoming conference: 7

This meeting to my way of thinking will be recorded in the archives of the National Association as the biggest thing yet to ever happen so far as the pill shops of this nation are concerned. But as I have often said that church ain’t over till they sing and to me this meeting in Chicago is the end of a rough and rugged road that has led us through valleys of hardships and bloody conflict…

In 1951 “Springfield Union” newspaper of Springfield, Massachusetts printed an article with an instance of the aphorism. Interestingly, the words were connected to the New England region instead of the South: 8

We forgot the old New England axiom, ‘Church ain’t over till the singin’ stops.’

In 1952 “Race Your Boat Right” by Arthur Knapp Jr. was published, and the author used the adage to emphasize that contest participants most work intensely up to the very end of a race: 9

“CHURCH AIN’T OUT ‘TIL THE SINGIN’.”
As you approach the finish line just remember that “Church ain’t out ’til the singin’.” I cannot repeat it too many times, for many a race has been won (and lost) a few yards and even feet from that imaginary tape.

In 1962 a sports columnist in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper quipped about the archetypal ending of an opera. This witticism was different, but a musical denouement was mentioned: 10

Everyone dies in the third act. There’s so many bodies sprawled around it looks like an air raid. There’s an old saying, an opera is never over till the last man is dead. And they die loud. It’s the home of the high-C death rattle.

A 1966 novel by the playwright and journalist Larry L. King depicted a political figure using the expression: 11

The Governor wallowed coffee in his mouth and swallowed, nodding. “All that might be true,” he said. “But church ain’t over till they sing.”

In 1974 the saying was used by Lee Arthur in the hockey domain. Arthur was a pioneering woman sportscaster who reported for KDKA radio and television in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She indicated that the expression was circulating in Indiana: 12

The Rangers wore down the Penguins and New York won, four to two. Some fans deserted the arena in the final minutes. “Why are they going?” Ms. Arthur asked in pain. “Back in Indiana we used to say, ‘The church ain’t over till the singing’s through.'”

In 1975 the “Texas Monthly” printed an article by Larry L. King about the game of dominoes that included the saying. King also used the expression in the 1966 citation listed previously: 13

A fat, red-faced, white-haired man who looked like South Boston politicians I later would know, Mr. Shackelford never panicked. “Church ain’t over ’til they sing,” he’d mildly remark while Uncle Claude attempted to blitz and intimidate him…

Quotation expert Ralph Keyes writing in “The Quote Verifier” noted that an adage combining the terms “church” and “fat lady” had been recorded in a 1976 collection of sayings. This fact was also noted in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”: 14 15

An obscure 1976 pamphlet called Southern Words and Sayings included this entry: “Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings.”

On March 10, 1976 an article in the “Dallas Morning News” included the first known example of the adage using the terms “opera” and “fat lady”. The words were spoken by Ralph Carpenter who was the Texas Tech University sports information director, and the topic was a close basketball game between Texas Tech and Texas A&M: 16

“Right,” said Ralph, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

On March 17, 1976 “The Baltimore Sun” in Maryland printed an instance spoken by the captain of the Baltimore Clippers hockey team that referred to “church” and the “choir”: 17

“Church isn’t over until the choir stops singing,” Clipper captain Fred Speck sang out yesterday after stepping ashore from a tuneup at Towson’s Orchard rink. “Anything can happen.”

On May 9, 1978 the “Galveston Daily News” in Texas printed a UPI newswire article in which the adage with “opera” and “fat lady” was spoken by Dick Motta who was the basketball coach of Washington Bullets. Importantly, Motta disclaimed credit and asserted that he had heard the phrase earlier from a “Texas sportscaster”: 18

For his feelings, confident Washington Coach Dick Motta recalled the comment of a Texas sportscaster after the Bullets had the San Antonio Spurs down 3-1 in conference semifinal, one which his team won in six games.

“This guy comes to the end of the story and he says on the sportscast, ‘The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings,'” he said, laughing.

In June 1978 a journalist with “The Washington Post” explored the provenance of the saying. She credited sports editor Dan Cook circa 1975 instead of Carpenter, and she suggested that Motta had heard Cook use the phrase: 19

One day three years ago, Ralph Carpenter, who was then Texas Tech’s sports information director, declared to the press box contingent in Austin, “The rodeo ain’t over till the bull riders ride.”

Stirred to top that deep insight, San Antonio sports editor Dan Cook countered with, “The opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings.”

When the San Antonio Spurs were down in a basketball championship series with the Washington Bullets recently, Cook repeated the phrase on the evening television sportscast and thus set off a chain of events that have led it to become a sort of motto for the Bullets.

In November 1978 the version of the adage with “church” and “choir” continued to circulate. Coach Bob Pafford of the Chicago Black Hawks hockey team spoke it as reported in the “Chicago Tribune”: 20

“But with us, church is never over until the choir stops singing,” said Coach Bob Pafford, who knows all too well that the Jekyll-Hyde Hawks lack a killer instinct.

In 1979 the saying with “church” and “fat lady” appeared in the book “Redneck Mothers, Good Ol’ Girls, and Other Southern Belles: A Celebration of the Women of Dixie” by Sharon S. McKern, and the phrase was geographically assigned to Macon, Georgia: 21

But like they say down in Macon, church ain’t out till the fat lady sings.

In January 1980 a sports journalist at “The New York Times” tackled a query about the source of the expression with “opera” and “fat lady”: 22

QUESTION: I’ve heard the expression, “The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings,” a number of times. I know that it has the same meaning as “the game isn’t over until the last man is out.” It has been attributed to a number of people, including Dick Motta, now coach of the Dallas Mavericks of the N.B.A. Who did originate it?

The expression has been used for a number of years by Dan Cook, a sportscaster with a CBS affiliate in San Antonio, in reference to the Spurs. Motta heard it in that city and began to use it, as have other coaches, commentators and writers.

In 1983 the syndicated humorist Art Buchwald used a variant expression with “the game” instead of “the opera”: 23

In the fourth quarter when we were down 17 to 13, I told Joe Theismann, my quarterback ‘The game isn’t over until the fat lady sings.’ It gave him new life, and the kid took it from there’

In conclusion, this family of sayings has a long history. The earliest instances were about music/songs and the ending of church services. QI believes that multiple variants evolved from this root class. The popular modern adage: “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings” was circulating by 1976. In the earliest published evidence dated March 10, 1976 Ralph Carpenter spoke the phrase.

A report in “The Washington Post” dated June 3, 1978 asserted that Dan Cook used the phrase in 1975, and Cook’s use preceded Carpenter’s. QI finds this intriguing claim difficult to evaluate because no details were provided about the evidence or testimony it was based upon.

QI would provisionally credit Ralph Carpenter with the modern aphorism. Perhaps future researchers will discover clarifying information.

Image Notes: Picture of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square; released into the public domain by the author MoTabChoir01; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Sports symbols from geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Rory Johnston whose query led QI to formulate this question and present this exploration. Special thanks to Fred Shapiro who located the key citations dated August 17, 1894 and March 10, 1976. Also thanks to Ralph Keyes, Charles Doyle, Barry Popik, and Nigel Rees for their valuable research. Additional thanks to the discussants on the ADS mailing list.)

Update History: On February 16, 2015 the 1979 citation was added. On November 18, 2015 the May 2, 1896 citation was added. In addition, the August 17, 1894 citation was added. On December 29, 2015 the 1872 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1872 October 17, The Daily Picayune (Times-Picayune), The Political Outlook: Opinions Of Leading Papers, From the Cincinnati Volksblatt, Quote Page 2, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1894 August 17, The Fort Worth Gazette, Lower Rate to Washington, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Fort Worth, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1896 May 2, New York Tribune, M’Kinley A Sure Winner: The Popular Conviction, Quote Page 1, Column 6, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1913 July 12, The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, Volume 51, Number 2, (Issue Start Page 41), Washington (Dateline July 12, 1913), Start Page 45, Quote Page 46, Column 1, Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1913 October 11, The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, Volume 51, Number 15, (Issue Start Page 249), Washington (Dateline October 1, 1913), Start Page 254, Quote Page 255, Column 1, Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1940, The History of United States Army Base Hospital No. 22, Compiled After Twenty Years from Actual Records and the Vivid Memories of Many of the Personnel by Bern V. Miller, Section: The Other Side of the Army, Start Page 72, Quote Page 75, Published by Direct Press, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (HathiTrust)
  7. 1937 September 9, N.A.R.D. Journal, Ramblings of a Pill-Roller by E. R. (Pete) Weaver, Page 1418, Column 1, Volume 59, Number 17, Published by National Association of Retail Druggists, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1951 September 28, Springfield Union, Man Like Eisenhower Seen As Key to Victory for GOP, Quote Page 30, Column 3, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1952, Race Your Boat Right by Arthur Knapp, Jr., Chapter 17: The Finish, (Chapter epigraph), Quote Page 247, D. Van Nostrand Company, New York. (HathiTrust)
  10. 1962 November 22, Rockford Register-Star (Register-Republic), Section: Sports, New Form of Opera by Jim Murray, Quote Page D3, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1966, The One-Eyed Man by Larry L. King, Quote Page 198, New American Library, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1974 May, Esquire, Volume 81, Sports by Roger Kahn, (Sports is a Monthly Department), Start Page 54, Quote Page 56, Published by Esquire, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1975 March, Texas Monthly, Volume 3, Number 3, The Only Game in Town by Larry L. King, Start Page 71, Quote Page 72, Column 2, Published by Emmis Communications. (Google Books full view) link
  14. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Entry: “The OPERA ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings”, Quote Page 156, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  15. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Entry: Church is not out till the fat lady sings, Quote Page 39, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)(The reference lists the following citation for the expression: Southern Words and Sayings (1976) Fabie Rue Smith and Charles Rayford; QI has not examined this 1976 book)
  16. 1976 March 10, Dallas Morning News, Section B, A Cakewalk This Time by Sam Blair, Quote Page 2, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  17. 1976 March 17, The Baltimore Sun, Clippers’ optimism prevails despite adversity, long odds by Lou Hatter, Quote Page C7, Baltimore, Maryland. (ProQuest)
  18. 1978 May 9, Galveston Daily News, Bullets Looking For One More, (UPI Newswire), Quote Page 2-B, Column 1 and 2, Galveston, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  19. 1978 June 3, The Washington Post, Signing a Free Agent for a Song by Nina S. Hyde, Quote Page B1, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  20. 1978 November 17, Chicago Tribune, Black Hawks do turnabout by Bob Verdi, Quote Page D1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  21. 1979, Redneck Mothers, Good Ol’ Girls, and Other Southern Belles: A Celebration of the Women of Dixie by Sharon S. McKern, Chapter: Rhinestone Cowgirls: Bright Lights & Country Music, Start Page 103, Quote Page 104, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  22. 1980 December 8, New York Times For Question Box by S. Lee Kanner, Quote Page C8, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  23. 1983 February 4, The Pantagraph, Thanks, I couldn’t have done it alone by Art Buchwald, Quote Page A7, Column 6, Bloomington, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)