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There’s one born every minute. March 1, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Blame today’s post on Mark Knopfler. Our friend Ben was listening last night to Knopfler’s fabulous “Shangri-La” CD—I should note for those who haven’t been fortunate enough to make his musical acquaintance that Mark Knopfler, founder of Dire Straits, is one of the greatest guitarists and songwriters who ever lived—and one of the songs included the line “never give a sucker an even break.” Our friend Ben, wordaholic that I am, immediately wondered where the phrase “break even” had come from, and became obsessed with finding out.

Of course, this led me first to the whole “never give a sucker an even break” thing. Knopfler was quoting here, but who was he quoting? P.T. Barnum, that legendary 19th-century impresario who supposedly said “There’s a sucker born every minute”? (Research reveals to OFB that Barnum actually didn’t say that, though he did coin the phrase “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Of the three contenders for the honor of creating the famous “sucker” phrase, it seems like a Chicago con artist is the most likely.)

Thinking more about the phrase Knopfler used in his lyrics, our friend Ben became convinced that that other famous showman, W.C. Fields, had something to do with it. Sure enough, Wikipedia revealed that Fields had written and starred in a 1941 film called “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.” He had used the phrase several times before, first in a 1936 film called “Poppy,” and then in 1939’s “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.” I suppose it became associated with him in the way that “I’ll be back!” became associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger in our own day.

But how did the original phrase, “break even,” come about to begin with? “Come out even,” “end up even,” “even the odds.” All these make sense. But what does breaking have to do with it? Our old ally Merriam-Webster says that “break even” means “to achieve a balance; especially, to operate a business or enterprise without either loss or profit.” Our friend Ben still doesn’t get what breaking has to do with this, or why “giving someone a break” means to give them a chance, a window of opportunity. As far as I can see, “break” means destroy, shatter, maim, harm (except in the case of “break dancing”). How did these expressions come by their positive connotations?

If you know, please enlighten us. Otherwise, our friend Ben has the uneasy suspicion that, when it comes to language definitions, there’s a sucker born every minute.

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