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According to the American Heritage Dictionary 'it takes two to tango' means:

  • The active cooperation of both parties is needed for some enterprises, as in
    We'll never pass this bill unless both parties work out a compromise—it takes two to tango,

and it adds that:

  • This expression dates from the 1920s, when the Latin American tango became a very popular dance. It was popularized by the singer Pearl Bailey in her 1952 hit song of that name written by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning.

It takes two to tango (etymonline):

  • Phrase it takes two to tango was a song title from 1952
  • Acually two versions of the song appeared that year, one by Pearl Bailey and the other by Louis Armstrong.

    Ngram shows instances of its usage from the late 40's/early 50's.

Questions:

  • Is there evidence that the expression was actually used for three decades before it was popularised by the famous song?

  • Was its figurative meaning taken from the Argentinian expression, or did it develop once it was adopted by the English language?

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    Phrases have no etymon and thus no etymology. – tchrist Oct 15 '15 at 12:06
  • @tchrist - not that uncommon, probably by extension. books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Oct 15 '15 at 12:27
  • It’s still incorrect: ask your local lexicographer. – tchrist Oct 15 '15 at 12:28
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    I'll ask ELU, in case :). – user66974 Oct 15 '15 at 12:29
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    Supposedly the term appeared in a book of poetry in 1912. But Google Books is notoriously buggy. – Hot Licks Oct 15 '15 at 12:39
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The concept suggested by the phrase It takes two to Tango was in use several centuries before the early 1900s.

According to the facts presented in Jennifer Speake's book, "The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs," the notion of it takes two is presented in terms of a Bargain and a Quarrel:

It takes TWO to make a bargain

Both parties to a bargain must consent to and keep the agreement.

1597 BACON Colours of Good & Euill x. 68 The seconde worde makes the bargaine. 1598 Mucedorus B2 Nay, soft, sir, tow words to a bargaine, a 1637 MIDDLETON et al. Widow v.i. There's two wordds to a bargain ever...and if love be one, I'm sure money's the other. 1766 GOLDSMITH Vicar of Wakefield II. xii. 'Hold, hold, Sir,' cried Jenkinson, 'there are two words to that bargain.'

It takes TWO to make a quarrel

A quarrel cannot happen unless the two opposing sides both insist on getting their way.

1706 J. STEVENS Spanish & English Dict. s.v. Barajar, When one will not, two do not Quarrel. 1732 T. FULLER Gnomologia no. 4942 There must be two at least to a Quarrel. 1859 H. KINGSLEY Geoffrey Hamlyn II. xiii. It takes two to make a quarrel, Cecil, and I will not be one.

According to Christine Denniston in an article, "Couple Dancing and the Beginning of Tango,"

The first piece of music written and published in Argentina describing itself as a tango appeared in 1857. It was called "Toma maté, ché".

As such, the term Tango would likely have not been in use much before that year, though pinning it down is a tad more complicated due to the uncertain origin of the term itself.

In addition, Ms. Denniston further explains that the dance Tango seems to have made its way to Europe from Argentina in the early 1900s:

The earliest evidence of Tango being danced in Europe comes from the first decade of the Twentieth Century. It probably came into France first through the port of Marseille, where Argentine sailors would dance with the local girls, and Tango was the couple dance they prefered. There is evidence of a couple dancing Tango on stage in Monmartre in Paris by 1909. But it was in 1912 that the Tango took Paris by storm.

Although I have no proof to confirm the reference to a book of poetry in 1912 given by user "HotLicks" above, if that is so, then 1912 is likely the first use of the term with the phrase It takes two to Tango.

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    Regarding your second question, whether it has Figurative or post-adoption development, who can really say. Perhaps it began as Literal. Tango is described as a face-to-face dance between two people that requires cooperation and interaction. It is an intense, passionate dance. Some clever person who understood this notion of the dance may have sensed a figurative use that would have been well-understood when the dance first became popular. The music certainly pushed it into more common use, and it took on a life of varied use in application to many interactions relevant to It takes two. – Katherine Oct 15 '15 at 17:41
  • Interesting research, so you assumption is that the expression 'it takes two to Tango' actually overlapped similar existing expressions probably as a consequence of the big popularity of the 1952 song. I was thinking more about the popularity of Tango in the US rather than in Europe at that time, (I think that is what AHD is referring to). – user66974 Oct 15 '15 at 21:01
  • The era of popularity for the dance Tango in the U.S. was during the 1920s and 1930s. With the advent of the Big Bands, Swing and Jitterbug came into favor. In 1952, when "It Takes Two To Tango" was a popular song, Rock and Roll was beginning to make its entrance. However, the popularity of the phrase at that time may have been a mixed bag: people liked the catchy song and, for many, the phrase was a "clean" tongue-in-cheek way to suggest sexual activity. Since the sexual revolution, it seems be used more generically for any situation that requires an interaction. – Katherine Oct 15 '15 at 23:22
  • So you suggesting that it acquired its now more common usage and meaning later, years after he phrase was popularised. – user66974 Oct 16 '15 at 7:41

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