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Prior to the invention of rockets, was there a phrase equivalent to: "it's not rocket science"? If so, what was it?

Here I am looking for a phrase that makes a comparison with a difficult job/task, so "easy as pie" wouldn't work. I'm also looking for a phrase that would also have been used before modern medicine. Thus, something different from, "it's not brain surgery".

To clarify: I'm looking for a phrase that was actually used in the English language. It could have been used in any English speaking country. Any time prior to when the expression "it's not brain surgery" might have been used, so earlier than probably 1930 or 40.

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    Give us a precise century, or say 1900s-1930s for instance, and the country: the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia ...there might be different slangs. I presume you're looking for slang, right? :) Etmology rocket type of self-propelling projectile, 1610s, from Italian rocchetto "a rocket," – Mari-Lou A Oct 6 '15 at 21:03
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    Lessee: It's not motor car science. It's not light bulb science. It's not steam engine science. It's not wheel science. It's not plow science. – Hot Licks Oct 6 '15 at 22:41
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    FYI, brain surgery has been around since the dawn of man. There are known cases of brain surgery from 7000 BC. And the use of the term its not brain surgery only goes back to the early 1970s. – Keltari Oct 6 '15 at 22:59
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    @HotLicks: Rockets were invented long before motor cars and steam engines. Though to be fair, rocket science proper started in the 1920s – slebetman Oct 7 '15 at 4:30
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    I was thinking of 'tis not alchemy but can't find a suitable real use. – Chris H Oct 7 '15 at 15:45
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You need not be a wizard.

wizard:

  1. a person who practices magic; magician or sorcerer.

  2. a person of amazing skill or accomplishment: a wizard at chemistry.

(Random House)

But one need not be a wizard to foresee by now that the outbreak of a revolutionary movement on the Communist order, in a Europe laid waste by a long war, will result in an era of anarchy, misery and extermination. (Google Books, 1940)

Financial geniuses are rare. Many men get wealthy through persistent plugging. You need not be a wizard. Just common sense will put you where the wolf will never molest your door. (Virginia Chronicle, 1921)

  • I really like this answer--I think it is the most similar in comparison to a rocket scientist. But 'greek to me' and 'don't have to be a genius' are great alternatives as well (see answers below). – spacetyper Oct 7 '15 at 14:48
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    This answer lacks a time when this sense became current, without which it could well be more recent than "rocket scientist". However, Shelton used it that way in his translation of Don Quixote in 1620, with Sir Walter Scott being called "The Wizard of the North" around the start of the 1800 and Lloyd George "The Welsh Wizard" in the early 1900s – Jon Hanna Oct 8 '15 at 14:23
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    That is the same as what they use in French: Ce n'est pas sorcier. (It is not wizardry.) – dangph Oct 9 '15 at 3:22
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    @paulkon There WERE and ARE wizards. You mean that magical wizards never existed "in a realistic sense" but there were many real men who had the title of "Wizard" or a synonym of that word throughout world history. See Michael Scot. Even modern men are called wizards for their intellectual abilities, such as Thomas Edison being known as the Wizard of Menlo Park. Furthermore there is an absolute etymological link between wizard and wisdom, with the word wizard actually being a synonym for philosopher and/or sage. – O.M.Y. Oct 10 '15 at 8:57
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    @paulkon wizards like Lloyd George certainly existed. If we require that the thing the word first refers to exists, then as well as genius being much more doubtful (would many believe such spirits exist and not believe wizards exist), the science of staffs used in spinning yarn (the original meaning of rocket) isn't particularly complex. – Jon Hanna Oct 12 '15 at 10:09
84

You don't have to be a genius appears to have been used in the early decades of the 20th century. Ngram shows examples of its usage before the 1930's.

From Popular Science. June 1919:

  • You do not have to be a genius. If you have a liking for drawing and develop it intelligently, there are many opportunities for you in this profitable professian.
40

It's not a Herculean task.

i.e. not requiring tremendous effort, strength, etc.

by reference to the twelve labours of Hercules (latin) or Herakles (greek). - Wikipedia

1748, Tobias George Smollett, The Adventures of Roderick Random

"He replied in a dry manner, that I would find it a Herculean task to chastise everybody who should laugh at my expense".

2006: Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear, commenting on the Bugatti Veyron

"The guys at Volkswagen have a Herculean task".

For VW, we can also say the same in 2015!

An authentic quote with "not" in Justice of the Peace and Local Government Review dated 1841, citing Douglas Fox, Esq. surgeon and child labor pundit, regarding the Derby Silk Mill:

Running 20 miles a day is not a herculean task for a child of 10 years of age.

Times have changed!

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    Shouldn't that be "a Herculean task"? – AJFaraday Oct 7 '15 at 10:11
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    It's an unusual thing, in cases where the h is not pronounced then "an" is suitable. This happens more in specific dialects. But I can't imagine "Herculean" ever being pronounced "Erculean" – AJFaraday Oct 7 '15 at 15:00
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    Re: "a(n) before "h": I believe this is a form of hyper-correction from people who don't understand the a(n) rule is based on the initial sound of the following word, not the letter that represents that sound. So, observing "an hour", "an herb" (if it be pronounced "erb") etc., in words with silent "h", people believe the rule treats h as a vowel. – Monty Harder Oct 7 '15 at 18:45
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    @SteveJessop "It's 'ardly an 'erculean tarsk, is it, laad?" – AJFaraday Oct 8 '15 at 10:14
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    This is neither widely cited (in the negative form) nor complete with the intellectual connotations of "rocket science" – underscore_d Oct 11 '15 at 16:31
23

I think the phrase you are looking for is "It's Greek to me" but used in the negative, "It's not Greek." This phrase predates Shakespeare's use in Julius Caesar, and in my opinion is the closest fit.

If this kind of exchange happened in Victorian London I don't think it would be anachronistic:

"I'm thinking of purchasing a motor carriage but I'm not sure. It looks rather difficult to operate."

"Nonsense. It's not Greek, you know. Anyone with the least bit of perseverance could master that contraption. Why, I have heard that even a lady might be successful in its operation."

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    This would seem to assume some level of knowledge of, or at the very least about, Greek. – a CVn Oct 7 '15 at 8:12
  • @MichaelKjörling this is a popular English expression. People say "it's not rocket science" but don't have Ph.D. In rocket science. Think about it. It's a figure of speech. – michael_timofeev Oct 7 '15 at 8:16
  • I know that "it's not rocket science" is a popular expression. But since the OP asked for a similar phrase from before rockets existed, suggestions would need to work at such a time. Back before rockets existed at all puts us no later than the 1600s. While I don't have citations ready, it stands to reason that the general public's knowledge of the world was quite different at that time compared to today. – a CVn Oct 7 '15 at 8:20
  • @MichaelKjörling yes and I thought of what kind of technology could fit into that "rocket science" slot. There isn't one and trying to find one will make the expression anachronistic. It's Greek to me is the best fit. Will you ask me if I speak Mumbo Jumbo if I say your report sounds like Mumbo Jumbo...or gobbledygook? – michael_timofeev Oct 7 '15 at 8:29
  • @MichaelKjörling - I'm pretty sure the OP means before modern rockets (i.e. the type of rockets that actually have rocket science applied to them). Just because some people threw propellant in something and made it fly in the 1600s that does not mean there was any of the math/science implied in "rocket science" involved. The origination of thinking of rocket science as difficult came with modern rocketry and the science behind it, and more specifically with the group of German scientists that came to be known as the "rocket scientists" after being captured and brought to the U.S. in 1945. – Jimbo Jonny Oct 9 '15 at 18:02
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"It's elementary, Watson." from Psmith, Journalist by P. G. Wodehouse c. 1909

1

"Its not brain surgery" would actually work.

Brain surgery has been around since the dawn of man. There are known cases of brain surgery from 7000 BC. The use of the term its not brain surgery only goes back to the early 1970s.

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    So this is not an answer. 'I'm also looking for a phrase that would also have been used before modern medicine. Thus, something different from, "it's not brain surgery".' – Edwin Ashworth Oct 6 '15 at 23:13
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    @EdwinAshworth It is clearly an answer. Just because the phrase is only known to in print in the 1970s, doesnt mean it wasnt used before. Also, it meets all his criteria. – Keltari Oct 6 '15 at 23:15
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    @Keltari: the question starts ‘Prior to the invention of rockets, was there a phrase equivalent to: “it's not rocket science”?’ It’s explicitly asking for an old phrase, not just a phrase referring to an old art. – PLL Oct 6 '15 at 23:37
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    Brain surgery has been considered smart, clever and complex since it began working. I really doubt drilling into someone's skull to let the evil spirits out counted as a particularly difficult task, such that it would be comparable to the idiom cited in the question. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 9 '15 at 13:14
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    You keep saying “just because it’s not in print doesn’t mean it wasn’t used” – that’s an argument from ignorance fallacy. The burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that the phrase was used. In fact, the lack of printed examples, not to mention the lack of popular familiarity with brain surgery as a concept (even if it did sometimes take place), strongly suggests it wasn’t used. This is a terrible answer, and your justification for it is pernicious. – KRyan Oct 12 '15 at 14:59

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