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Re: It aint over till the fat lady sings

Posted by john on May 10, 2010 at 16:51

In Reply to: Re: It aint over till the fat lady sings posted by Baceseras on May 10, 2010 at 14:27:

: : : : : : : A phrase used all the time now is 'it aint over till the fat lady sings.'
: : : : : : : This makes no sense in operatic terms since the fat lady usually sang in the first act. I heard the phrase originally as: it 'aint over till the fat lady dies'. This is more usual in opera and makes sense. Does anyone else remember the original?

: : : : : : I can picture Moe waking Curly up with a sharp elbow to the ribs, saying "All right, the fat lady's dead; let's scram" but I'm having a hard time picturing a scenario where someone would teach a budding opera buff that the way you know when it's over is when the fat lady dies. Then again I don't know any opera buffs and maybe they're more earthy than I thought.

: : : : : [It doesn't have to make sense to a wise opera-goer, but it makes perfect sense to the boyfriend or husband dragged along and just willing to put up with a couple of hours of such entetainment. Picture it through his eyes: curtain up, the whole company marches onto the stage, outlandishly costumed; he marks one, a fat lady in a white bathrobe with a gold rope around the equator; he doesn't know the word "supernumerary"; she's wearing a horned helmet and carrying a spear: she looks important; moreover she fits his image of an opera star. Everyone on stage is singing; he waits for her to step forward and go into her solo - but instead, the chorus ending, another cast of characters enter and start batting tunes back and forth. The chorus springs back to life, but only for a moment; then the fat lady scoots off and her pals with her. These other characters make eyes at each other; they have a lot to sing about, supposedly; sometimes they wave swords or pose on the picturesque rocks. The poor gentleman in the audience settles in for the duration; a blurry lifetime later, girlfriend or wife elbows him into alertness: he focuses on the stage. Is it over yet? No. "It ain't over till the fat lady sings." - Bac.]

: : : : There seems to be some disagreement as to WHAT is over when the fat lady sings. Michael Quinion, in "Wolrd Wide Words," offers a suggestion I hadn't heard. See:

: : : : http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ita1.htm

: : : : It seems that more than one writer remembers hearing the expression, "Church ain't out 'til the fat lady sings," which has been described as an old Southern saying.

: : : : Michael Quinion's article concludes:

: : : : "...Church ain't out 'till the fat lady sings.

: : : : "This last version appears in a 1976 booklet by Fabia Rue Smith and Charles Rayford Smith entitled Southern Words and Sayings. Ralph Keyes wrote a book with the title Nice Guys Finish Seventh in 1992 in which he says that several informants recalled hearing the expression for decades before it suddenly became nationally known in 1978. The use of church here suggests that its origin didn't lie either in opera or sport. It may even be a proverbial Southern expression."
: : : : SS

: : : [Michael Quinion's article is a good one, but one should read it carefully to avoid misapprehension. Although the saying REFERS TO either opera or curch-singing, it didn't ORIGINATE IN either of those places. Rather, it's a piece of folk-wit; and its meaning is, "Every thing you'd expect to happen must happen before this thing can end." (It doesn't matter whether that's generally true or not; it's the speaker's opinion, tartly stated.) And the place where wit of this kind is usually expressed, and where it's heard by enough people to get it into wide circulation, is any sporting meet. All the earliest attributions point to a sporting occasion, and they're probably right. - B.]

: : I'm not sure I get Baceceras' drift. The saying is a "piece of folk wit," which borrows the fat-lady-singing image from . . . ? Let's say that the folk wit was a single person who thought up this clever way of expressing his point, that is, as Yogi Berra put it, "It ain't over till it's over.& quot; That's very plausible. Still, what did he mean with his image of the fat lady singing--and why did he think his acquaintances or audience would understand his meaning?

: : I'm not sure, either, about "sporting occasion," although it is true that sportswriters are constantly on the lookout for colorful images with which to spice up their somewhat over-written paragraphs. But they almost always borrow their more interesting metaphors from someone or somewhere.

: : It's also true that the fat lady in the opera sings somewhere in the first act, and does not wait until the finale to open her throat. On the other hand, a Protestant church service normally has one big musical number besides the congregational singing of hymns. That's not to say that the wag who coined the phrase necessarily knew this. But he got his idea somewhere, and we still, I think, are not sure where.
: : SS

: [Concerning folk-wit, the attempt to find a 'first' speaker is like trying to find the first grain of sand in a heap. Nevertheless, Smokey asks about this first speaker, "What did he mean with his image of the fat lady singing--and why did he think his acquaintances or audience would understand his meaning?" If we would stop to satisfy ourselves on these questions before cracking wise, we would lapse into silence. That will never do! Word-clever children learn early (without necessarily formulating the lesson) what others eventually learn: that wit can risk an allusion, even a far-fetched allusion - and if the word comes timely enough, their hearers will 'get it,' laugh now and repeat it later. Perfect comprehension, which may be impossible anyhow, is not called for; and to try to achieve it may be a liability: there's such a thing as over-explaining a joke.

: [Yet in the hope that a teensy bit of explanation will do no harm, I'll venture that part of the wit of the 'fat lady' saying is that it doesn't mean merely 'It ain't over till it's over.' Instead it means, 'It ain't over till it's _complete_' - it says, Wait for it ... you know it's coming ... the necessary, the essential ingredient. - Baceseras.]

My knowledge of opera is limited to what I've seen in cartoons. I'll take other people's word for it that operatic fat ladies usually sing in the first act, but maybe the reference isn't to operas, in general, but rather to one specific opera. In Wagner's Gotterdammerung, the highlight of the final act is a ten minute aria sung by Brunnhilde, one of the Valkyries. This is the fat lady, with her Viking armour and winged helmet that I always imagine. I can also imagine wanting to leave the theatre long before the end of that song. Now I`m off to find that Bugs Bunny cartoon on "Youtube". It was a classic!