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The catchphrase from Star Trek captain Jean-Luc Picard "Make it so!" was first used in "Encounter At Farpoint" (28 September 1987) and thereafter in many episodes and films, instructing a crew member to execute an order.

My question
Where does this phrase come from? Was it "invented" for Star Trek? What are the associations for native speakers, when they hear it (apart from Star Trek ;-) Does it feel strange or like Old English?

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1 Answer

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It had a specific nautical meaning in the 19th century. From the OED:

I. 35. †f. Naut. In the imperative phrase make it so, by which the commander of a vessel instructs that the time reported to him (e.g. the end of a watch and spec. noon, when sights are taken to determine what was formerly the start of a ship's day) is relayed to the crew (see quots. 1826 and 1867). Hence (occas.): to mark (a time of day, etc.) formally in this way. Also in extended use. Obs.

1826 Let. 14 Mar. in G. Jones Sketches Naval Life (1829) I. 101 Eight bells are now reported to the quarter-master, and by him, to the officer of the deck; who answers, ‘make it so’; and sends a midshipman, to inform the captain, that it is meridian. The bell is struck; and two long successive pipes, from the boatswain and his mates, are the signal, that all work is to cease.

Also:

V. To behave, act, or move (in a specified way).

54. trans.

a. [Probably after the same Latin idiom as sense 55a.] to make it (with adverb or adverb phrase of manner): to act, behave. make it so: see also sense 35f. Obs.

eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Tiber.) (Junius transcript) xvi. 98 Ðeah he [sc. Paul] upaðened wære on his modes scearpnesse, ne forhogode he ðæt he hit eft gecirde to ðæm flæsclican burcotum, & gestihtode hu men sceoldon ðærinne hit macian.

[...]

a1586 Peblis to Play in W. A. Craigie M*aitland Folio MS* (1919) I. 178 Quhat neidis ȝow to maik it sua?

I found an example earlier than the OED's 1826 of the naval command. It appears in correspondance in The Naval Chronicle, For 1808: Containing a General and Biographical History of The Royal Navy of th United Kingdom; With a Variety of Original Papers on Nautical Subjects Volume XX (From July to December):

THE grand mechanism of naval discipline (if I may be allowed the expression), consists in the various gradations which take place, from the monarch who delegates his power to the Admiralty, to the lowest ship-boy. [...] This rule is in general well supported in our ships of war, and it has amused, if not excited the ridicule of some landmen who have observed its various stages in trifling instances. Thus, a centinel informs the quarter-master, that "it is twelve o'clock;" the quarter-master the mate ; the mate the lieutenant; the lieutenant the captain ; the captain the admiral ; and then the order to ring the bell, or, as it is usually, though absurdly, expressed, make it so, returns back through the same number of persons, before the important command can be given to, and executed by the cook's mate.

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Presumably a comment might be worthwhile about how starships in the Enterprise series are seen as being in the tradition of the ocean-going sailing ships which the OED I.35.f describes, complete with a ship's wheel on the observation deck. –  Andrew Leach Apr 22 '13 at 10:37
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Thank you, this is indeed very helpful! Now for the "feel": I guess most people are not experts in 19th century nautical lingo, so how does this phrase "feel" to a modern native speaker? –  vonjd Apr 22 '13 at 10:59
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There is nothing exclusively nautical about it, nor idiomatic: it is simply the imperative form of a standard expression. For example, Shakespeare wrote: "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". –  MετάEd Apr 22 '13 at 11:22
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@vonjd I wouldn't think that a native speaker would ever misunderstand this phrase but it would likely seem a bit pretentious if it was used seriously. That being said, I think I may start using this with all my students :) –  KennyPeanuts Apr 22 '13 at 11:59
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I was in the US Marine Corps. At boot-camp, when we were given an order, and the Drill Instructor would say "Do it now!" so that it was well understood that the command was meant for immediate execution. That set a mindset for me so that when I hear "Make it so" it strikes me as "Do it now." Knowing there is a strong nautical influence in the traditions of Starfleet, I always thought this was their equivelent. –  TecBrat Apr 22 '13 at 12:18
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