Brother, Can You Paradigm?

William Safire? Marie Shear? Cornell Daily Sun? Walter Gieber? Inis L. Claude Jr.? Ben Yagoda? Jack L. Walker? John Leonard? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A U.S. song that was popular during the Great Depression era depicted an impoverished person making a plaintive request:

Brother, can you spare a dime?

This song title inspired the creation of a collection of puns:

Buddy, can you paradigm?
Brother, can you spare a paradigm?
Sister, can you paradigm?

William Safire, the language columnist “The New York Times”, used the second of these expressions. Would you please explore the provenance of this wordplay?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1933 within the student newspaper of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill called “The Daily Tar Heel”. The paper acknowledged another college while printing the pun. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

To Our Hall Of Fame We Nominate

The Cornell Daily Sun for: “Then there’s the song the Greek prof sings in his classes—Buddy Can You Paradigm?

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1961 Walter Gieber of the University of California, Berkeley penned a book review in the “Journalism Quarterly” which mentioned the work of scholar Harold Lasswell who studied communication using quantitative measurements: 2

Our social scientists count too much (I’ve heard some mention of this at AEJ conventions). The Laswellian and like communication formulas don’t tell us anything about the real communication process (brother, can you spare a paradigm?).

In 1970 the political science journal “PS” published a humorous poem titled “Questions for a Political Science Recruit” by Inis L. Claude Jr. of the University of Virginia. The final six lines of the twenty-eight line work were the following: 3

Come now, can you operationalize,
Quantify and conceptualize?
Can your output be machine-read?
Have you a code in your head?
Are you adept at research design—
Brother, can you paradigm?

A note accompanying the poem above stated that the journal editor was told about the piece by Jack L. Walker of the University of Michigan. In 1972 Walker published an article in “PS” about the “highly disjointed discipline” of political science, and he used the following title: 4

Brother, Can You Paradigm?

In 1973 literary critic John Leonard used the expression in his newly published book “Black Conceit”, and the reviewer in “The New York Times” reprinted the pun: 5

It is a prose that conjures hilarious scenes in a twinkle, moves mountains, fashions landscapes, and kills whatever it fixes with a baleful eye. It is a total system; it puts it all together. Oh, and it puns (“Brother, can you paradigm!”).

In 1975 political and language columnist William Safire also used a version of this wordplay in the title and body of an essay: 6

The failure of Britain’s welfare state is a perfect example of the result of governmental meddling in economics: Brother, can you spare a paradigm?

The statement with “buddy” and “spare” also circulated in the 1970s. For example, in 1977 K. Shrader-Frechette of the University of Louisville published an article in the journal “Philosophy of Science” with the following passage: 7

Since the appearance of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scholars from various disciplines have sought to confirm the absence of, or need for, a paradigm in their respective fields. (Recently one political scientist wrote an article entitled, “Buddy, Can You Spare a Paradigm?”)

In 1993 “Safire’s New Political Dictionary: The Definitive Guide To the New Language of Politics” included an entry for “paradigm shift” which contained the following: 8

. . . Richard Darman, Bush’s budget director, who remembered Depression-era song titles, wryly commented that the concept would be dismissed with “Brother, can you spare a paradigm?”

In 1994 “The New York Times” published a piece by Ben Yagoda of the University of Delaware with an instance of the quip in its title: 9

Ideas & Trends: Retooling Critical Theory: Buddy, Can You Paradigm?

In 1999 “The Women’s Review of Books” published a review titled “Brand Illusions” by Marie Shear which contained the following passage: 10

The problem is that ideas cannot be assessed and appreciated by readers forced to concentrate, instead, on deciphering stupefying jargon and staving off puns that spring to mind, unbidden. Sister can you paradigm? Trope, trope, trope the girls are marching…

In conclusion, this family of sayings began to circulate by 1933 via the editors of “The Cornell Daily Sun” and “The Daily Tar Hell”. Perhaps the pun was crafted by a member of the student body, faculty, or staff. In 1961 Walter Gieber helped to popularize the expression “Brother, can you spare a paradigm?”. The version “Brother, can you paradigm?” entered circulation by 1970, and the expression “Sister can you paradigm?” appeared subsequently.

Image Notes: Public domain illustrations of the U.S. dime obverse and reverse derived from United States Mint images. Images have been resized and combined.

(Great thanks to James A. Landau who mentioned seeing a bumper sticker with the message “CAN YOU SPARE A PARADIGM?”. His message gave additional impetus to QI to formulate this question, complete this exploration, and create this article. Special thanks to Ben Yagoda who pointed to his 1994 article containing the phrase “Buddy, Can You Paradigm?” in its title. This inspired additional searches which uncovered the 1933 and 1977 citations.)

Update History: On October 4, 2021 the 1933, 1977, and 1994 citations were added. The conclusion was rewritten.


  1. 1933 January 20, The Daily Tar Heel, To Our Hall Of Fame We Nominate, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1961 Winter, Journalism Quarterly, Book Review (Walter Gieber’s review of Eric Larrabee’s “The Self-Conscious Society”), Page 102, Column 1, Published by the American Association of Teachers of Journalism, Iowa City, Iowa. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1970 Winter, PS, Volume 3, Number 1, Questions for a Political Science Recruit by Inis L. Claude Jr. (University of Virginia), Start Page 47, Quote Page 47, Published by American Political Science Association. (JSTOR) link
  4. 1972 Autumn, PS, Volume 5, Number 4, Brother, Can You Paradigm? by Jack L. Walker (University of Michigan), (Article title contains quotation), Quote Page 419, Published by American Political Science Association. (JSTOR) link
  5. 1973 October 31, New York Times, Books of The Times: Characters in a Wordstorm by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, (Book review of John Leonard’s “Black Conceit”), Quote Page 43, New York. (ProQuest)
  6. 1975 June 2, New York Times, Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm? by William Safire, Quote Page 25, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1977 September, Philosophy of Science, Volume 44, Number 3, Atomism in Crisis: An Analysis of the Current High Energy Paradigm by K. Shrader-Frechette (University of Louisville), Start Page 409, Quote Page 409, Published by The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1993, Safire’s New Political Dictionary: The Definitive Guide To the New Language of Politics by William Safire, Entry: paradigm shift, Start Page 547, Quote Page 548, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1994 September 4, New York Times, Ideas & Trends: Retooling Critical Theory: Buddy, Can You Paradigm? by Ben Yagoda, Quote Page E6, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1999 December, The Women’s Review of Books, Brand Illusions by Marie Shear, Start Page 8, Quote Page 9, Column 4, Published by Old City Publishing Inc.(JSTOR) link