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I’m interested in the origin of the idiom:

If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas.

When was it first used? Is this the original idiom, or was there an older version? Furthermore, how should its meaning be interpreted?

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From The Phrase Finder:

"If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a Merry Christmas?" seems to be attributed to Don Meredith (the American football player/ commentator). To rephrase it: if all these reasons why we can't do something were party foods instead of words, we could have a really great party.

It would seem to be patterned after "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride" and "If I had a 'coin' for every 'something', I'd have 'a lot of money'" (insert your favorite coin, something and amount of money).

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1  
I also enjoy saying things of the form "If I had a 'lot of money' for every 'something', I'd be broke" – jcarpenter Sep 8 '14 at 14:40

It is used to express the fact that "if" and "but" are used too many times, so the speaker of this utterance disapproves of their use.

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I don't think people would often trot out this "ditty" because they think "if" and "but" are used too often in general. They say it when suggesting a possible course of action or explanation to someone who keeps raising objections using these words. – FumbleFingers Nov 3 '11 at 21:51
    
That's exactly what I meant. Apparently it wasn't clear from the way I wrote it. – Irene Nov 4 '11 at 16:02

The aphorism was coined by the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Don Meredith, who later became a sports commentator for the TV show Monday Night Football in 1970.

17 December 1970, Ada (OK) Evening News, pg. 7, col. 1:

Howard: “If Los Angeles wins, it’s a big one, but San Francisco is still very much in it.”
Dan: “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.
Howard: “I didn’t think you’d remember that old canard.”
Dan: “Is that what it was?”

Source: Barry Popik.com

The 1970 quip soon became Meredith's catchphrase, but it was a modern and comical twist on a much older proverb dating from the 19th century

If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinkers’ hands
Oxford Reference

This proverb is used as a humorous retort to someone expressing a forlorn regret (e.g. if only I had the money...) or an unrealistic and perhaps over optimistic condition (... and if I had the right connections, I could be famous.)

The earliest example I found on Google Books is dated 1845 from The step-mother by George Payne Rainsford James.

Ay! if ifs and ands were pots and pans, there would be no work for the tinkers.

@Sven Yargs has discovered an even earlier example, in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, 1828, from a poem entitled A chapter of Ifs

A Chapter of Ifs

If Ifs and Ands were pots and pans,
’Twould cure the tinker's cares
:
if ladies did not carry fans,
They’d give themselves no airs:
If down the starry skies should fall,
The starlings would be cheap:
If Belles talk'd reason at a ball,
The band might go to sleep.

[…]

And finally, printed in 1821, an excerpt translated from a poem entitled Hans Beudix by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794)

Hans Beudix

Are you there, my old fox, with your ifs and your ans?
But I need not remind you, they're not pots and pans,
Else tinkers would starve, (as I learnt from my nurse;)
Still the answer shall pass, for it might have been worse.

The original German poem can be found here: Der Kaiser und der Abt. Maybe someone can confirm if the translation is faithful.

Below is an Ngram comparing the two aphorisms: Don Meredith's “...buts were candy and nuts” (blue line), and the German/British “ands were pots and pans” (red line) side by side in the American English corpus. The time span is between 1968 and 2008. The 1968-72 results for Meredith's coinage are false positives, so it's always wise to take Ngrams with a pinch of salt. No results are displayed for the American rhyme in the British English corpus.

enter image description here

If we expand the time scan between 1835 and 2008 we obtain the following

enter image description here

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