Optimist: The Glass Is Half Full. Pessimist: The Glass Is Half Empty. Comedian: The Glass Is the Wrong Size

Steve Martin? George Carlin? Terry Pratchett? O. J. Anderson? Davis Merritt Jr.? Tom Page? Allen Klein? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Different attitudes towards life are vividly illustrated by divergent reactions to a partially filled glass:

Optimist: The glass half full
Pessimist: The glass is half empty

A third humorous category is sometimes added to the two categories above. Here are some examples:

Realist: The glass is too big
Comedian: The glass is simply the wrong size
Engineer: The glass is twice as big as it needs to be

Would you please explore the history of this extended joke?

Quote Investigator: If readers wish to learn about the original simple bipartite split then they should follow this link to a separate QI article on the topic.

The family of sayings which presents a comical tripartite split is difficult to trace because the family is highly variable.

The first match located by QI appeared in the “Fort Lauderdale News” of Florida in 1977. An unnamed sports writer used an instance while describing a college football player named O.J. Anderson who emphasized the positive. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1977 November 8, Fort Lauderdale News, College Scene: Hurricanes: Anderson Believes Miami Can Win Remaining Three, Quote Page 4E, Column 1, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Optimists say the water glass is half full. Pessimists claim that it is half empty. O.J. Anderson would probably say the water is really overflowing except you can’t tell because the glass is too big. That’s how much of a positive thinker Anderson is.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1979 newspaper editor Davis Merritt Jr. attributed a version of the joke to the prominent comedian Steve Martin:[ref] 1979 November 18, The Wichita Eagle Beacon, FYI: Rx for Understanding by Davis Merritt Jr. (Executive Editor), Quote Page 1F, Column 3, Wichita, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The stories illustrate a classic newpapering problem: Is the glass half full or half empty? Or, in a twist on that conundrum suggested by Steve Martin, maybe the glass is simply the wrong size.

In 1984 a newspaper columnist in Elmira, New York named Tom Page attributed a version of the jest to the well-known comedian George Carlin:[ref] 1984 August 27, Star-Gazette, It’s all in how you look at it by Tom Page, Quote Page 1B, Column 1 and 2, Elmira, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

A pessimist looks for the difficulty in every opportunity. An optimist looks for the opportunity in every difficulty. Or, to put it in the perspective of comedian George Carlin, it isn’t whether the glass is half full or half empty, but simply that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

In 1987 the columnist Tom Page credited George Carlin again. This version used the word “realist”:[ref] 1987 June 19, Star-Gazette, Seriousness certainly not the only route by Tom Page, Quote Page 1B, Column 4, Elmira, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

There are optimists, pessimists and realists. Comedian George Carlin, a realist, said it’s not that the glass is half full or half empty, but that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

In 1989 Allen Klein published “The Healing Power of Humor” which included an instance of the quip:[ref] 1989 Copyright, The Healing Power of Humor by Allen Klein, Part 2: When You Feel Like Crying: Techniques for Getting through Trying Times, Number 5: Attitude: Whistle a Happy Tune, Quote Page 75, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Which way you choose to see anything depends on your attitude . . .

Do rosebushes have thorns or do thornbushes have roses? Is the glass half empty, half full, or is the glass twice as big as it needs to be?

In 1990 Will Crowder posted an instance to the rec.humor newsgroup of the Usenet discussion system. Crowder disclaimed credit by describing the joke as “an old one”:[ref] Sep 26, 1990, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.humor, From: Will Crowder, Subject: Old engineering joke. (Google Groups Search; Accessed April 7, 2022) link [/ref]

The optimist sees a glass that’s half full.
The pessimist sees a glass that’s half empty.

An engineer sees a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be!

In 1992 columnist Richard Cromelin of “Los Angeles Times” claimed that Carlin used an instance while appearing on a popular television show:[ref] 1992 May 19, Los Angeles Times, Pop Music Review: Asleep at the Wheel Rolls Into the Greek by Richard Cromelin, Quote Page F7, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

On the “Tonight Show” last week, comedian George Carlin put a twist on an old adage, saying, “Some people see the glass as half full, some people see the glass as half empty. I see the glass as too big.”

In 2000 the famous fantasy author Terry Pratchett included a humorous variant in his Discworld novel “The Truth”:[ref] 2000, The Truth by Terry Pratchett, Series: Discworld, Quote Page 20, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty.

The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass! Who’s been pinching my beer?

In 2003 popular self-help and leadership author John C. Maxwell included an instance in his book “Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work”:[ref] 2003, Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work by John C. Maxwell, Part 2: Eleven Thinking Skills Every Successful Person Needs, Skill 2: Unleash the Potential of Focused Thinking, Quote Page 77, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

“An optimist looks at a glass and says the glass is half full. A pessimist looks at a glass and says it is half empty. An engineer looks at a glass and says that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.”
—Source Unknown

In conclusion, this family of jokes based on a tripartite split has been evolving for decades. The originator remains anonymous. The first citation located by QI in 1977 employs the odd locution: “would probably say”; hence, the unidentified sports journalist who wrote the words may deserve credit, but QI suspects that future researchers will uncover earlier citations.

The major humorists Steve Martin, George Carlin, and Terry Pratchett have been linked to this jest, but these citations began to appear after the first instances of the joke family were circulating. Also, QI has not yet seen direct supporting evidence within a book or stand-up routine from Martin or Carlin.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a water glass that is half empty or half full. A classic quandary of the optimist versus pessimist. Illustration from neotam at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Scott Underwood, Stephen Goranson, James Landau, and _ynsc_ who all sent QI versions of this joke. QI was inspired to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher Barry Popik who located the 1990 citation for the engineer variant. Also, thanks to RobM0RM0NT who pointed to Terry Pratchett’s 2000 novel.)

Update History: On April 12, 2022 the Terry Pratchett citation was added to the article.

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