opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings, the

The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings. Many have wondered where this phrase comes from. Well, they have to keep on wondering because the origin is obscure.

The earliest recorded version of the phrase is somewhat different than the one familiar to most people. It appears in a 1976 pamphlet titled Southern Words and Sayings, by Fabia and Charles Smith:

Church ain’t out ‘till the fat lady sings — It ain’t over yet.

Ralph Keyes, in his book Nice Guys Finish Seventh, cites numerous people who claim to have been familiar with the phrase, in one form or another, in the decades prior to the 1970s, but no one has found a recorded use prior to 1976.

This early appearance of the church version casts doubt on what the underlying metaphor of the phrase is.  With the opera version, it is clearly a reference to a hefty Wagnerian soprano belting out an aria for a rousing finish to a show. With the church version, this is not so clear.

The opera version of the phrase first appears that same year in the 10 March 1976 edition of the Dallas Morning News:

Despite his obvious allegiance to the Red Raiders, Texas Tech sports information director Ralph Carpenter was the picture of professional objectivity when the Aggies rallied for a 72-72 tie late in the SWC tournament finals. “Hey, Ralph,” said Bill Morgan, “this Morgan, the league information director, is going to be a tight one after all.” “Right,” said Ralph, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

The opera version of the phrase was also allegedly used in a San Antonio News-Express column by sportswriter Dan Cook that same year, although the exact citation cannot be found. Cook again used the phrase in an April 1978 radio broadcast during a basketball game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Washington Bullets. Bullets Coach Dick Motta learned of the phrase and used it as a caution against overconfidence when the Bullets pulled ahead in the playoff series. Motta’s use of the phrase became a popular sensation. From the Washington Post of 13 May 1978 in an article headlined ‘Fat Lady’ Sings for Bullets, 101-99:

Last week when the Bullets led in the series, 3-1, Coach Dick Motta cautioned against undue optimism by saying, “The opera is not over until the fat lady sings.” She sang loud and clear last night for Washington.

On 28 May 1978, the Post explained how Motta acquired the phrase:

Possibly, Bob Hope asked Mr. Carter the other night about the line Dick Motta borrowed from a man in San Antonio, who stole it from someone else, that has so much of Washington in a dither: “The opera ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings.”

[. . .]

Like most memorable lines, the one credited to Motta and badly botched on all those t-shirts now selling at Capital Centre—was not an instant hit. A broadcaster in San Antonio had used it after game one of the Spur-Bullet playoff, to illustrate that even though the Spurs had won, the series hardly was over.

“And I said the same thing after we got up three games to one,” Motta said. “And I gave the guy credit. Only nobody paid much attention. Then I said it again after we go up 3-1 again over Philly—and all of a sudden the thing catches on.”

The fact that no one has found a citation earlier than 1976 indicates that the phrase, in whatever form, is probably not much older than that. It is more likely a folksy-sounding invention, rather than a traditional Southern expression. Both variants are from the Southern US, although the Smiths don’t indicate what part of the South the Church variant is from. And since they appear nearly simultaneously, we can’t tell which version is the original.

(Source: Cecil Adams’s Return of the Straight Dope)

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