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A colorful idiom for someone who can only do one thing at a time is

he can't walk and chew gum at the same time

Obviously, this only makes sense if you know what the heck chewing gum is. Was there a similar phrase in vogue before chewing gum became popular?

For that matter, when did walk and chew gum enter the lexicon? Is it true that this is a sanitized version of Lyndon B. Johnson's description of Gerald Ford? (The original purportedly had "fart" instead of "walk".)

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I think LBJ was the originator - this from the 1974 biography President Ford: the man and his record [Ford's] attitude inspired President Johnson to make the cutting but quotable comments that Ford had played too much football without a helmet and that he was unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. –  FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 23:51
    
...since American footballers characteristically chew gum all the time, it seems likely to me that was the original, and that "fart" was a later embellishment. –  FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 23:54
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Side note: Baseball players chew gum (or tobacco) incessantly. Football players, on the other hand, wear plastic mouth guards under helmets which are tightly secured with a chin strap, and therefore usually aren't chewing gum. –  J.R. Mar 7 '12 at 2:44

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Q: Was there a similar phrase in vogue before chewing gum became popular?

The phrase can't walk and chew gum at the same time is often used to describe someone who's clumsy, uncoordinated or stupid, and there are many idioms for this: can't tell one's arse from his elbow, all thumbs, butter fingers, ham fisted, klutz.

There are also other phrases that mean it's impossible to do multiple things at the same time, but these are usually "defensive" rather than "insulting", such as having your cake and eat it too (recorded in 1546 as wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?) and the Yiddish can't dance at two weddings [with one behind/pair of feet].

Another multitasking phrase with yet another meaning is to have one's finger in too many pies, for a person who is able to multitask, but is overdoing it.

Q: when did walk and chew gum enter the lexicon?

It can be found in a May 1966 snippet of the US Marines' The Leatherneck, quoting Sgt Jerry Necaise:

"In fact, I had a man in my squad who was so uncoordinated, he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. But, after two weeks in Canada, he was skiing like a pro!"

According to The Big Apple it can be earlier found in a Texas newspaper:

24 December 1956, Denton (TX) Record- Chronicle, sec. 2, pg. 2, col. 4:

A classic comment by a local basketball player referring to a teammate’s co- ordination: “He can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”

The same site believes the phrase comes an earlier "talk and chew gum".

Q: Is it true that this is a sanitized version of Lyndon B. Johnson's description of Gerald Ford? (The original purportedly had "fart" instead of "walk".)

Yes, but the walk version was around before Johnson's fart version. From the Guardian's Gerald Ford obituary:

One of his few deviations from the classic rightwing agenda was to support Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation. But that did not save him from the presidential quip (later sanitised for a prissy American public) that "Gerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time".

And Wikipedia:

As Minority Leader in the House, Ford appeared in a popular series of televised press conferences with famed Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, in which they proposed Republican alternatives to Johnson's policies. Many in the press jokingly called this "The Ev and Jerry Show". Johnson said at the time, "Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time." The press, used to sanitizing LBJ's salty language, reported this as "Gerald Ford can't walk and chew gum at the same time."

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A similar expression, but one not tied to a modern invention, is pat your head and rub your tummy. It isn't used in quite the same way; the "chew gum" expression is only ever used negatively, but it indicates an ability to perform two unrelated actions simultaneously.

Another one, based in juggling is having a lot of balls in the air, meaning working on many uncompleted things at the same time successfully. Failure to do so could cause you to drop the ball and hence fail.

A similar one, but much less used has to do with having a lot of plates spinning, a reference to performers who would literally balance several spinning plates on long poles.

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I'm 77yo and my earliest memory of "can't walk and chew gum at the same time" is my mother saying it to describe a cousin. My earliest memories begin when I was two years old. And my mother was a gum chewer from back. She used to drive my dad nuts snapping it.

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There were other idioms that describe doing more than one thing at the same time, such as :

'Have one's fingers in too many pies.'

This describes a person who is involved in way too many activities at the same time. Usually used when describing someone who doesn't seem to be able to cope with the load of stuff they have to do.

Or

"Kill two birds with one stone"

This time, this idiom is used to describe someone who can actually do two things at once and succeed.

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couple things. Having your fingers in "many" pies is a much more common expression than "too many". Kill two birds, refers to a specific efficient act, not the person performing it. –  Sam Mar 7 '12 at 2:59
    
Firstly, I have always heard the expression as "too many". Perhaps it's used differently in different areas. Secondly, aren't the idioms used to describe acts as well? E.g. can't walk and chew gum... refers to an act doesn't it? –  Bidella Mar 7 '12 at 4:17
    
Er... no, it specifically does not refer to an act. And even if it did, it's still a different kind of idiom, so probably not helpful to OP. –  TimLymington Mar 7 '12 at 13:03

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