Three questions:

  1. What is the origin of the English idiom, "spread oneself too thin?"
  2. Is this used as frequently in the U.K. as it is in the U.S.?
  3. What about Australia and New Zealand: Is it as common in the two beautiful countries down under as it is in the U.S.?
  • 1
    The answer to (1) is that it's a metaphor, based on spreading butter, jam, paint, glue, or some other sticky semiliquid material on a flat surface, in cooking or construction contexts. There is usually a minimum effective thickness for the material being spread, and failing to meet that minimum leaves the material "spread too thin" (glue too thin to adhere, jam too thin to taste). This refers to failure. In the metaphor, a person's activity is the "stuff" being "spread", and being "spread too thin" is a metaphor for having too much to do, with resultant failure. – John Lawler Nov 29 '14 at 17:03
  • Okay. Thanks for the explanation. I do appreciate it. I think intuitively that makes sense. But I can't find a source for this transparent idiom. I'd like to know the specific year and who supposedly used it first. Moreover, questions (2) and (3) are important. – Patrick T. Randolph Nov 29 '14 at 20:26
  • 1
    Sorry, nobody keeps statistics on when somebody first uses a metaphor. Shortly after paint was invented, is my guess. As for relative frequencies in various speech communities, if you actually need accurate figures you could commission a sociolinguistic survey. – John Lawler Nov 29 '14 at 23:26

To spread oneself too thin doesn't have an entry in the OED, but goes back to the late 19th century.


The oldest I found is from the 1893 Report of the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the Vermont Dairymen's Association:

Why, when a man undertakes to spread himself over the whole work embraced in agriculture, even if he is a pretty smart man, he will spread himself too thin. (Laughter.) No man should attempt so big an undertaking.


Here's a "spread himself too thin" in an 1894 newspaper (Mexico Weekly Ledger, September 06, 1894):

Gov. McKinley is going to speak in the Maine campaign. If he doesn't mind he will spread himself too thin to hold that nomination.


The exact phrase "spread myself too thin" goes back to at least 1942 in The Saddle and the Plow: An Historical Novel of Texas by Ross McLaury Taylor (page 167, confirmation):

"Yeah! Me, too. Reckon I spread myself too thin." Fielding massaged the bulbous tip of his nose with a bent forefinger and thumb.

"I thought everything was all right with you!"

"Yeah! Me, too. Reckon I spread myself too thin." Fielding massaged the bulbous tip of his nose with a bent forefinger and thumb.


Another is from Billboard magazine of 14 August 1948 ("Early Success Reflects Capable Act Merchandising by Al Martin"):

"I haven't spread myself too thin," Al says. "As a result of this I have been forced, for the time being, to pass up some good business that has been offered to me in the Middle West."

US v. UK

This ngram chart shows, of the texts indexed by Google Books, it's more common in US English than British English.

| improve this answer | |
  • Although everyone knows this passage from the start of the published The Lord of the Rings, first seen in 1954: ‘I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.’ cont. – tchrist Nov 30 '14 at 17:35
  • (cont.) But most do not know its genesis written many years before that publication date; see The History of Middle-Earth, Volume VI: The Return of the Shadow in Chapter III “Of Gollum and the Ring” in which we read: ‘That was the Ring,’ said Gandalf. ‘Of course it is a poor sort of long life that the Ring gives, a kind of stretched life rather than a continued growing – a sort of thinning and thinning.’ Just when that part was written is unclear to me; I wager it was in the very early 40s. – tchrist Nov 30 '14 at 17:38

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