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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: Jimmy Carter

if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

(1970’s | journalese (politics) | “leave well enough alone,” “don’t rock the boat,” “let sleeping dogs lie”)

So is this phrase proverbial or not? It sure sounds it, and there’s no shortage of people ready to claim it as a fine old example of down-home southern wisdom. (One early citation claimed it came from descendants of Swedes in Minnesota, also pretty down-home.) I’m not saying it isn’t, but there are precious few examples of it in print before 1977, when it emerged from the mouth of Bert Lance, Jimmy Carter’s budget director, and quickly became a bromide. (Here‘s a good history of the phrase.) Sure, Lance probably was not the first person to utter it, and if you scroll down enough discussion boards you can find folks who remember hearing it as far back as the fifties, and if you press them, they will brandish a newspaper clipping from oh, say, 1976, that den of antiquity. Why can’t it just be a new expression, people? Why can’t we just give Bert Lance the credit? Well, it sounds proverbial — a complete sentence, words of one syllable, down-to-earth advice about everyday nuisances that achieves a wider scope, and that strategic “ain’t,” which assures us of the speaker’s sincerity. I’ve covered other instant proverbs in this vein: no pain, no gain; no harm, no foul; pick your battles; be careful out there; listen to your body, think outside the box.

The expression counsels restraint and even a bit of humility (in embarrassingly short supply these days), but it is also a great hymn to inertia; critics have a point when they warn against complacency. There are several elaborations on the phrase, many of which have to do with seeing problems coming and correcting them before they get out of hand. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will come back to haunt you if you ignore dangers on the horizon. The expression is effective in debate because the only way to top it is with a quick and convincing reply: “It IS broke, and here’s why.” We want to believe it’s true; in its short(?) life the phrase has risen to the level almost of an axiom, or a law of nature. We prefer to think of such rules to live by as the result of centuries of refinement, because they seem less debatable that way — part of the appeal of an anonymous or group pedigree.

Thanks to Lance, this particular adage has generally been considered a member of the sub-species dixieii (I heard it first from my Tarheel mother, who used it with relish). Meddlers who want to change things that are working perfectly fine have assorted names in the South, all of them bad: carpetbaggers, busybodies, reformers (which, if you back off the first syllable a bit can sound a lot like “foreigners”), progressives. In the South as elsewhere, politicians cozy up to local prejudices with dog whistles, double meanings, and high-flown rhetoric — because they work — and it’s my guess that southerners are more vulnerable to such things per capita than people from the rest of the country, but not a lot. Of course, very few Americans of any region welcome uninvited visitors who aim to mess with their way of life.

Both Reagan and Bush used the phrase around the time of the 1980 election, lending it a right-wing flavor that to my ear, at least, it still has (cf. nothing-burger, truly needy, junk science, zero tolerance). It is indeed conservative wisdom — a direct descendant of the Hippocratic Oath, which ought be enough of a pedigree for anyone. Conservatives do have a reputation for sitting on the status quo, not to be confused with modern-day right-wingers ripping society apart to take us back to the idyllic (for whom?) eighteenth century, or fourteenth, or whatever. But it suits today’s right-wingers to clothe themselves in conservative garb on occasion, and this expression is one of many that rings the right changes with their loyal voters.

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