I asked a question earlier,

Did Einstein really say, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."?

In the comments it was suggested that this question of off-topic because it is about the origins of a phrase, not about the English language. Since I first started writing this meta post, my question has been closed.

However, etymology is specifically on-topic for this site. There are numerous examples, and the etymology tag is attached to thousands of questions.

Being a long-time StackExchange user, I did read the FAQ and meta for this site before I posted my question, and found:

  1. There is nothing in the charter which disallows questions asking if one specific person said one specific thing,
  2. Asking about the origins of a single word is specifically allowed
  3. It was previously established in meta that asking a questions "Who said X first?" is not on-topic, but that's not what I'm asking here.

So, I ask:

  1. Are questions of the form "Did (Person X) say (Phrase Y)?" on-topic?
  2. If not, why not, and has this been previously established for this site?
  • 2
    On topic on Skeptics SE. (As an aside, the lack of a redirect from sceptics to skeptics continues to be an annoyance.)
    – TRiG
    Dec 11, 2013 at 16:40
  • @TRiG: I doubt it. Skeptics is about challenging claims, not establishing attribution. The "quotes" tag has several open questions of this form (thanks for the link), but that doesn't mean they are on-topic. I've started a meta question there. Dec 11, 2013 at 17:03
  • 2
    Etymology is the origin of a word, which is on-topic. Authorship of a phrase is not. Dec 11, 2013 at 23:28
  • @TRiG wouldn't "sceptics" be pronounced differently?
    – Mr Lister
    Dec 27, 2013 at 10:29
  • @TimLymington, Where do you draw the line then? 40 years later, people are going to ask the etymology (origin) of the phrase/axiom "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler'
    – Pacerier
    Jun 9, 2015 at 23:02
  • 1
    @Pacerier: as I said, the origin of a word is on topic, as being answerable, and factual. There is no origin of a thought; the way it is expressed.may be traceable (though usually not) but is off-topic. And please don't misuse 'axiom': I believe you mean 'maxim'. Jun 9, 2015 at 23:24
  • @TimLymington, Yes, "maxim". And we're not talking about the origin of a thought. We're talking about the origin of a phrase, which is as on-topic as the origin of a word.
    – Pacerier
    Jun 10, 2015 at 10:03
  • @Pacerier: the 'origin of a phrase' is meaningful only when it is rare and/or idiomatic, though even then it is almost certainly off-topic. The 'first person to use' a trite maxim is most definitely not suitable for this site. All this has been said before: I do not know why you think this is a good moment to try and re-open the discussion. Jun 10, 2015 at 12:49
  • @TimLymington, Because I spot a huge error in the reasoning. My question is simple: Why is "etymology of words" allowed but not "etymology of phrases"?
    – Pacerier
    Jul 10, 2015 at 11:59
  • Please look up 'etymology'; it does not mean 'first person to use'. Jul 10, 2015 at 12:02

3 Answers 3


I'd see a distinction between the development of the English language, vs one person's use of the English language. E.g. if you asked

Where does the phrase 'a pound of flesh' come from?

This is a phrase that has come into general use. It has it's origin in Shakespeare, though that's not obvious to the person asking the question — they've arrived at the phrase through seeing it in use and are unsure how it could have taken on its meaning, which they couldn't fully grasp without being told the context of the original play. To me, that's what makes it an "English language question".

In your example above, by contrast, there isn't a question of etymology (as in, each word is being used as per its standard dictionary definition) — you're simply looking for an attributable source.

The first question would be of interest to people who like the English language, the second to people who like Albert Einstein :)

  • 1
    So you're sayong if it is a popular phrase it is on topic but of its not popular its off topic? Isn't that a bit subjective? Who's to say how popular it is and what level of popularity it must have? And who isn't a fan of einstein? Nobody I know... :) Dec 10, 2013 at 23:07
  • 1
    @JohnDibling Not popularity per se, but common use--which is measurable and frequently used by linguists as a tool to determine what has made its way into a language. Dec 11, 2013 at 15:03
  • 1
    Leaving aside the obvious notion that there's really no spiritual difference between something that's "popular" and something that's in "common-use," ... has a quantifiable acceptable level of common-use been established, below which questions are off-topic? In other words, isn't this still arbitrary? Shouldn't they either all be explicitly off-topic or all be explicity on-topic? Dec 11, 2013 at 16:46
  • 6
    @JohnDibling No, not popularity, I'd say — if it's a phrase rather than a quote. You're talking about tagging the question as etymology, which is about the definition of words or how they acquired a new meaning; possibly it could extend to phrases, but it doesn't extend to quotes. You're question isn't about the meaning of a particular word (or about the phrase as a whole), it's about attribution, which isn't an English language question. Dec 11, 2013 at 19:45
  • 1
    @anotherdave: Ok, that's an explanation that I can buy. But your argument would also preclude your "Pound of flesh" example from being on-topic as well. Dec 11, 2013 at 21:18
  • 1
    What I mean is, as a phrase, 'pound of flesh' is in common use to the extent that it's in the dictionary; but its origins may not be clear (e.g. in Cambridge, dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/pound-of-flesh, it's not mentioned.) Asking for a reason why it has come to have the definition that it does seems as valid for a phrase like this, as it does for a single word — even if the term 'etymology' strictly doesn't cover phrases (I'm not 100% sure?), I think it's useful if it's taken in that vein for the site. Hope that clarifies what I was trying to say above. Dec 11, 2013 at 21:59
  • @anotherdave, And what if 5 years from now some dictionaries start including the phrase "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler"? So are you saying that the criteria here is whether you can find a dictionary that has the phrase in it?
    – Pacerier
    Jun 9, 2015 at 23:04
  • 2
    @Pacerier — as I said above, I'd personally draw a distinction between idiomatic usage & straight usage. Regardless of who said "Einstein's" phrase first, it doesn't have an interest as an English language question to me, as each word uses it's simplest dictionary definition — there might be confusion over who brought the phrase into being, but not why; it means what it means. As I said above, if you look up a pound of flesh, the meaning of the phrase is available but it's still interesting to ask why it means this Jun 10, 2015 at 6:34
  • @anotherdave, The phrase "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler" is definitely not straight usage. It's an idiomatic usage that means "Occam's razor". Would someone who does not know the context behind that phrase know it's meaning? They could guess but they'd most surely be wrong. Neither is this a "simple lookup" question because you could have Webster beside you and still not know the correct meaning of "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler".
    – Pacerier
    Jun 10, 2015 at 9:59
  • 2
    "Would someone who does not know the context behind that phrase know it's meaning?" — yes. It may be paraphasing Ockham's razor, but is arguably doing so to explain it to people who haven't heard of it. I still see a distinction between a phrase that you don't know why it's important without context vs one that you don't understand why it means what it does without context. Jun 10, 2015 at 12:47
  • @anotherdave, The question is not asking why the phrase is important. It's asking about the origin of the phrase. How did it came to be that "etymology of words" are allowed but not "etymology of phrases"?
    – Pacerier
    Jul 10, 2015 at 11:57

May be off topic, but then again...Einstein

  • Right, that's why I asked! :) Dec 11, 2013 at 15:15
  • 2
    @Susan: Nope, Feynman said that. Dec 12, 2013 at 4:37
  • @MichaelOwenSartin - I believe it was Yogi Berra, though not in those words; he said; I never said half the stuff I said. Dec 12, 2013 at 4:39
  • @medica, If the expected truth value of the above statement is 0.5 ("half"), the expected truth value then becomes 0.25 (half of "half"). If the expected truth value of the above statement is 0.25, the expected truth value then becomes 0.125.
    – Pacerier
    Jun 10, 2015 at 9:44

I would not want us to become a version of Quote Investigator . Instead, we should close such questions and refer there.

  • Isn't the whole point of StackExchange to be the de-facto one-stop-shop for questions on various topics? Dec 11, 2013 at 16:43
  • 3
    @JohnDibling Yes, but not every Exchange is about any topic — if you were to propose quotes.stackexchange.com, with the purpose of finding attributal sources, it would be a great fit (and probably a nice little site), but it isn't what ELU is meant to be about. Dec 11, 2013 at 19:46

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