On the quote watch

An exchange on Facebook a few days ago, provoked by a 4/9/17 piece linking to 4/15/11 story “World’s languages traced back to single African mother tongue: scientists” on PRI (Public Radio International). Various annoyed responses, including, from Ben Zimmer:

No idea why this PRI piece has been making the rounds lately, but it’s about the old 2011 Science paper

My response:

On Facebook, everything old is new again.

— intending to use the boldfaced catchphrase (or cliché) to convey something like ‘fashions and trends are repeated or revived’. Then I wondered about the history of the expression, and found nothing useful in dictionaries of quotations, idioms, and clichés, at least for this wording used in this way. What I found were links to biblical quotations with different wording conveying rather different content; and then, from the 1970s on, a ton of examples of what was clearly recognized as a catchphrase / cliché, used much as I used it above.

As I note here every so often, I am not a lexicographer or a quotes investigator, and I don’t have the resources to pursue the history of expressions in their sociocultural context (though I do hang out with people who do these things, splendidly). So here I’m just setting the problem.

Biblical times. Searching on Google for “Everything old is new again” yields a number of biblical references having to do with renewal (all cited in their KJV versions, since the KJV has been enormously influential in the English-speaking world):

Ecclesiastes 1:9 KJV: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Isaiah 43:19 KJV: Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.

2 Corinthians 5:17 KJV: Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new.

Revelation 21:5 KJV: And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.

The quotations from Isaiah, Corinthians, and Revelation are about new creation, renewal as transformation. The sense of Ecclesiastes, however, is renewal as repetition. The current English catchphrase echoes the wording of the Revelation passage (I make all things new) while conveying the sense of the Ecclesiastes passage (there is no new thing under the sun).

Ecclesiastes crossed with Revelation: powerful poetry.

Modern times. We now leap forward to 1974, when Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager used the catchphrase “Everything Old Is New Again” as the title and theme of an enormously popular song.

You can watch Allen performing here a version of the song as it appeared in the 1979 movie All That Jazz. There have been many covers of the song. The full lyrics, from Metrolyrics, so you can appreciate its theme of living fully in the present by reviving and reliving the past:

When trumpets were mellow
And every gal only had one fellow
No need to remember when
‘Cause everything old is new again

Dancin’ at church, Long Island jazzy parties
Waiter bring us some more Baccardi
We’ll order now what they ordered then
‘Cause everything old is new again

Get out your white suit, your tap shoes and tails
Let’s go backwards when forward fails
And movie stars you thought were alone then
Now are framed beside your bed

Don’t throw the pa-ast away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again

Get out your white suit, your tap shoes and tails
Put it on backwards when forward fails
Better leave Greta Garbo alone
Be a movie star on your own

And don’t throw the past away
You might need it some other rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again
When everything old i-is new-ew a-again

I might fa-all in love wi-ith you again

From Wikipedia:

The Boy from Oz is a jukebox musical based on the life of singer/songwriter Peter Allen while featuring songs written by him. The book is by Nick Enright. Premiering in Australia in 1998 starring Todd McKenney, the musical opened in a revised version on Broadway in 2003 with Hugh Jackman in the title role

The formulaic nature of the expression can be seen in the way it was used, again and again, as a title or tag. For instance, as the title of an epsisode of the tv series ER (S1 E25, 5/18/95): “Everything Old Is New Again”. And in an observation in Stephen King’s 2005 novel The Colorado Kid: “Sooner or later, everything old is new again”. It’s all over the place.

From there to here. The task, of course, is to get from there to here, to trace the path by which an assortment of ways of saying that fashions or events are repeated or revived crystallized into a specific form of words for conveying the sentiment. By what route did the idea get fixed into a formula?



2 Responses to “On the quote watch”

  1. An Unexpectedly Old Art: Beeswrap - Poetic Earth Month Says:

    […] which instead of moving in a straight line ever upwards seems to cycle back around, so that what was old is new again—just like that […]

  2. Mid-Century Männerbund: Mad Men Mans-Up | Counter-Currents Says:

    […] is either ironically old fashioned or modern (i.e., the Jazz Age) – everything old is new again (origin unknown), or as Marlene Dietrich says in Touch of Evil, “The customers go for it – it’s so old, […]

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