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like a fish needs a bicycle
Posted: 07 August 2008 11:53 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Does anyone know where and when this expression came into use?
Somebody has suggested Irina Dunn, 1970, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”.

Are there earlier citations?

Thanks.

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Posted: 07 August 2008 12:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Seems to be from a phrase, “Man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle.” Phrase Origins.

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Posted: 08 August 2008 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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And according to Fred R. Shapiro’s very well researched Yale Book of Quotations, the quote she modeled it on is by Charles S. Harris (U.S. psychologist, 1937- ): “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle” (Swarthmore Phoenix, Apr. 7, 1958).

Aha, and Brewer’s Famous Quotations has more detail:

In addition, Harris put in a reasonable bid to have (as he thinks) coined the original phrase format: ‘I do know where the fish without a bicycle came from: an intro philosophy class at Swarthmore College in 1955. In reaction to our assigned reading of St Augustine, I wrote: “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle.” Later, it was printed along with other quips, in my weekly humor column in the Swarthmore College Phoenix (8 April 1958).’

I note that one of the dates is wrong—I’m guessing Harris’s, since he was probably not researching as thoroughly as Shapiro.

(You can read an editorial Harris wrote for the same college paper about Sputnik the previous year here, and the NY Times wrote about his wife, independent scholar Judith Rich Harris, here.)

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Posted: 08 August 2008 09:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Personally (and in a bit of a silly mood so please forgive), I find “I coined this phrase, wrote it on a piece of paper, and hid it under a rock. Now, it’s known throughout the world.” stories unsatisfying and here are two chained together.  Via reductio ad absurdum and Occam’s Razor, we have Irina Dunn in Sydney, Australia reading a 1958 newspaper from a small (but prestigious) school in Pennsylvania. 12 years later, she writes her own version on 2 bathroom walls in Sydney.  Gloria Steinham (some undefined time later) travels to Sydney, reads the bathroom wall (which hasn’t been cleaned, painted, or overwritten in the mean time) and comes up with her own version.  Oh, and the bathroom wall was signed and dated because not only does Ms Steinham know but she remembers the author and date.

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Posted: 08 August 2008 09:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Huh?  Are you saying all these people are collaborating in a giant lie?  Steinem credited Dunn and Dunn credited Harris, and Harris’s line is published and verifiable.

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Posted: 08 August 2008 10:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I don’t see where Dunn credits Harris; in the link above she says she saw the religious version in “a philosophical text”.  But you’re correct that she doesn’t claim to have coined the fish-bicycle trope, merely to have adapted it from man/God to woman/man.

Is twelve years enough for the phrase to have made it from Harris’s student newspaper column to a philosophical text?  Well, it’s certainly possible that an academician in the area of religion or philosophy saw and liked Harris’s quip, and used it in a book or paper.  I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Harris merely thinks he coined it, but without a documented earlier use by someone else, I think we have to give him credit, at least provisionally.

As noted here, the phrase caught on with feminists and was widely disseminated (on buttons, bumper stickers and, IIRC, t-shirts); I don’t think we need to posit that its appearance in Ms. magazine means that Steinem must have personally read Dunn’s graffitti.

Edit: In fact, the relevant page of the modern Brewer’s is visible here, and shows that as late as the 1990s Steinem had no idea who originated the feminist version.  She obviously heard it through the grapevine and eventually, after being erroneously credited with originating it, tried to track down the source.  So Steinem believes Dunn’s claim of originating the feminist version but, it seems to me, this is not evidence for or against Dunn’s claim.

[ Edited: 08 August 2008 10:51 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 08 August 2008 12:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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languagehat - 08 August 2008 09:52 AM

Huh?  Are you saying all these people are collaborating in a giant lie?

Reading the individual accounts:
Harris published something in the campus-only newspaper.
Dunn wrote it on 2 bathroom stalls.
Steinham heard it, and knows who wrote it and when they wrote it (when it was written on the bathroom stalls and by whom).

I’m sure all the individual stories are true and also make for amusing anecdotes, but the connections are not being told.  If Harris _only_ published it in the Swathmore Gazette in 1958, how did Irina hear about it in Australia?  If Irina _only_ wrote it in the bathroom stalls, how did Gloria know about it and know that it was Irina in 1970?

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Posted: 08 August 2008 12:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Gloria Steinem had this to say in a letter she wrote to Time magazine in autumn 2000:
“In your note on my new and happy marital partnership with David Bale, you credit me with the witticism ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ In fact, Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the phrase back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. She paraphrased the philosopher who said, ‘Man needs God like fish needs a bicycle.’

The Phrase Finder http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/414150.html

fish-bicycle.jpg

[ Edited: 08 August 2008 12:22 PM by cuchuflete ]
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Posted: 08 August 2008 03:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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...but the connections are not being told.

No, they are not and it’s pointless to make assumptions about them. Harris may have only published his phrase in the Swathmore Gazette, but that doesn’t mean that some other person didn’t read it and comment on it in some more widely read publication. There is no reason to assume that the only way Irina could have been exposed to it was by reading the Swathmore Gazette. There is also no reason to assume that Irina *only* wrote it on bathroom stalls. That was the story of the coinage, not necessarily the whole story. Even if it was the whole story from her end, there’s no reason to assume that Gloria would have had to read it off the stall to hear about it. Someone else may have read it and liked it and talked it up and spread it to someone who published it or even knew Gloria personally. Six degrees and all of that, eh? I think this is a great example of how seemingly impossible sequences of events happen all the time in ways both ridiculous and sublime.

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Posted: 09 August 2008 07:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Myridon - 08 August 2008 09:22 AM

Personally (and in a bit of a silly mood so please forgive), I find “I coined this phrase, wrote it on a piece of paper, and hid it under a rock. Now, it’s known throughout the world.” stories unsatisfying and here are two chained together.  Via reductio ad absurdum and Occam’s Razor, ...

I merely stated that I find incomplete anecdotes unsatisfying, i.e. less than fulfilling, slightly incomplete, leaving me wanting a bit more.  I even prefaced the comment with statements that it is a personal opinion, I realize that it’s a bit of a silly thing to say, and the argument is carried to absurd extremes.

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Posted: 12 August 2008 04:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Gloria Steinem had this to say in a letter she wrote to Time magazine in autumn 2000:
“In your note on my new and happy marital partnership with David Bale, you credit me with the witticism ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ In fact, Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the phrase back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. She paraphrased the philosopher who said, ‘Man needs God like fish needs a bicycle.’

My perception of the (very) few active feminists I have met is that they were somewhat deficient in appreciation of true wit.

“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” is not a witticism, it is a heavy handed and laboured attempt at a bon mot.

“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”, on the other hand, would have been a genuine witticism.

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Posted: 12 August 2008 05:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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More plagiarise than paraphrase in that format though (wonder if there’s a sliding scale from paraphrase to plagiarise . . .)

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Posted: 12 August 2008 08:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Around the same time that I first heard the woman/man//fish/bicycle line, I read a quotation (which a fast Google search ascribes to St. Catherine of Siena, but I didn’t explore it more deeply), “The fish is in the sea and the sea is in the fish as god is in the soul and the soul is in god.”

At this point I can no longer remember whether I heard the god variant of the bicycle line at the same time, but I’ve always found a certain piscine affinity between the feminist and the mystical phrases.

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Posted: 12 August 2008 08:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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My perception of the (very) few active feminists I have met is that they were somewhat deficient in appreciation of true wit.

Do you actually know any feminists, or are you just repeating a standard (and by now quite tedious) bit of anti-feminist rhetoric, which presumably came about because feminists for some odd reason tend not to enjoy the standard tropes of “humor” that depend on putting women down?  I have known a lot of feminists (and consider myself one), and they all have an excellent appreciation of true wit.  Our definitions of “true wit” may, of course, differ.

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Posted: 12 August 2008 09:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Our definitions of “true wit” may, of course, differ.

They may, they may indeed.

Am I to understand from your post that you perceive no difference in the quality of wit between

A : “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”

and

B : “ A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”

?

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Posted: 12 August 2008 12:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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While I agree with Murrmac that there is a distinct difference in the quality of wit in the two versions, I second Languagehat’s notion that feminism has nothing to do with it. It seems to me that its simply a case where the subtle humor has been lost through simplification resulting from repetition.

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