What’s the origin of “the opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings?”

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Dear Cecil: What’s the origin of the expression, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings”? Dolly G., Oakland, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

First let’s get it straight: it’s “the OPERA ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” Amazingly, we know exactly who originated 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. He was trying to buck up local basketball fans who were 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. 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.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.