Lee Arthur? Dick Motta? Dan Cook? Ralph Carpenter? Fred Speck? Bob Pafford? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?
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.
- 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) ↩
- 1894 August 17, The Fort Worth Gazette, Lower Rate to Washington, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Fort Worth, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1896 May 2, New York Tribune, M’Kinley A Sure Winner: The Popular Conviction, Quote Page 1, Column 6, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 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 ↩