What’s the origin of the expression, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings”? –Dolly Gattozzi, Oakland, California

First let’s get it straight: the original expression was “the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” Amazingly, sources agree on exactly who coined this expression and approximately when. It was first used around 1976 in a column in the San Antonio News-Express by sportswriter Dan Cook. (Cook does not recall the precise date or what the column was about.) Cook, who is also a sportscaster for KENS-TV in San Antonio, repeated the line during a broadcast in April 1978 to buck up local basketball fans, dejected because the San Antonio Spurs were down three games to one in the playoffs against the Washington Bullets. Bullets coach Dick Motta heard the broadcast and used the expression himself to caution fans against overconfidence after his team finished off the Spurs and took on Philadelphia. The phrase became the team’s rallying cry as they went on to win the championship and from there it entered the common pot of the language. Most newsies aspire to nothing grander than a Pulitzer Prize, but Cook can tell his grandkids he’s in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs.


Your reply to the question, “What does ‘that’s the exception that proves the rule’ mean?” [August 2] was not quite right. The quote refers to a logician’s axiom: that which can never be false can likewise never be true. If a statement cannot be admitted ever to be false, then it is a concealed tautology, i.e., a dogma. An instance of a proposition’s not-being-the-case serves to affirm its existential validity, assuming it does not commit a violation of the rules of logic. Both logical validity and existential verification are required for one to justly assert that such-and-such is true… –Max A. Langley, Santa Barbara, California

You’re talking about “falsifiability,” Max. If no conceivable evidence could prove a given statement false, then the statement is meaningless. For example, if a psychic comes out with predictions so vague they can’t possibly be proven wrong, then the predictions are BS. Note, however, that contrary evidence has to be merely conceivable. If contrary evidence actually exists, the statement is more than falsifiable, it’s false. To put it as clearly as I can, THE EXISTENCE OF AN EXCEPTION DOES NOT VALIDATE THE FREAKING RULE! Quite the opposite. You’ve got a better vocabulary than most of the schmucks who have written me about this (“existential validity”–I love it!), but you’re just as wrong.

OK, OK, I acknowledge your general brilliance, but I can’t stand it another minute. The appropriate provenance of the saying “It’s the exception that proves the rule” is psychology, not logic. You can have a rule without an exception, but you can’t have an exception without a rule. Therefore, if something appears to be an exception, that indicates that a rule must exist. If you reflexively think of something as an exception, then you can infer that you’ve already, perhaps unconsciously, postulated a rule. Perceptually, the exception throws the rule into relief. It’s analogous to, “It’s turning on the light that proves you were in the dark.” Read it as “It’s the [recognition of an] exception that proves the [existence of a] rule.” Geez, it’s just a saying, and not a bad one at that. –Kyle Gann, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania

What is this, proverb as Rorschach test? Everybody I’ve heard from has a different take on this. I have to say, though, that “you can’t have an exception without a rule” is a little goofier than most. There is nothing in the literature or common experience to support your farfetched interpretation. However, in saying that “the exception throws the rule into relief” you do hint at the correct interpretation, namely, that an exception tests a rule. Let’s take the rule that “pitchers can’t hit.” The obvious exception is Babe Ruth. By “proving” (testing) the rule he forces us to think more carefully about it and perhaps refine it–for example, by saying no modern pitcher can hit. So I’ll buy that part of your argument. But the rest of it is too screwy for words.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.