I am not native English speaker but in my native language (French) and local language (German) the expression about seeing the glass 'half full' or 'half empty' also exists. I then also noticed that the expressions exists in almost every languages.

Does anyone know a bit of history of this expression? I am mostly interested in the origins, how it spread, and by what famous occasion was it is used.

the Wikipedia page is not very rich of such information, neither is Google.

  • commenting my own post: from my own search, my hypothesis is that it could initially come form a debate about a traduction (from? good question...) that could be either "half full" or "half empty". anyone to dig the topic more deeper? but basically the hesitation "half full" or "half empty" already existed with some of the oldest translation dictionaries. – Jonathan Nov 27 '17 at 12:03

A quick scan points to Ronald Reagan as the source of this expressio, when he stated in a press conference on February 21, 1985

You can say it's like saying, is the glass half full or half empty?

However, it seems the Peace Corps already used it in an advertisement campaign in the 1960s:

PeaceCorps campaign 1968

Delving a bit deeper, it seems the expression is even older: here is a version with a half full/empty bottle from 1933.

I'm quoting the quote from the linguistlist bulletinboard:

Two men were looking at a bottle of milk. Said one with a groan,
"The bottle is half empty." Said the other with a grin, "The bottle
is half full." The first belonged to the courters of disasters,
forever bemoaning their losses; the second to the invincibles who
win by counting their blessings.
source: Los Angeles Times, Feb 26, 1933, p. 14

As user Peremensoe comments on the straight dope:

The rather wordy explanation is suggestive of an early use.

  • 2
    This expression is so natural in Europa also among the elders and all generations, that makes me difficult to believe that it is less than a century old. do you think it is justified? I cannot find another example of expression so young yet so popular. – Jonathan Nov 20 '17 at 14:42
  • @Jonathan I am open to an older source in any language :) My natural instinct with expressions that are so common in different Western languages is to look for a Biblical source, but there doesn't seem to be one in this case. – oerkelens Nov 20 '17 at 16:51
  • I can't seem to find anything on the history of the expression in Dutch or French. Maybe I'll look later for German and Greek. – oerkelens Nov 20 '17 at 17:10
  • Clearly, whether the glass is half full or half empty depends on whether you're in the process of filling or emptying it. – Steven Littman Nov 20 '17 at 17:45
  • @oerkelens thank you for the search, please coment again if you find anything. I also searched French, Dutch and German as they are languages I am comfortable with but could not find much through internet. A quick scanning through my foreign friends: the most comfortable with the expression seems too be Europeans and middle-east, the least are Asians. Also Gabriel Wells is Hungarian so maybe it has its root around east Europe. – Jonathan Nov 21 '17 at 9:08

Slightly earlier than 1933 is this quote from The Mathematics Teacher, Volume 20 (1927): "Do you know Algebra?" Said the Rabbit. "Yes, I liked it in High School," said Alice. "What is one of the axioms of Algebra?" "Equal multiples of equals are equal," said Alice, selecting the first she remembered. "Indeed!" said the Rabbit. "You will admit that a bottle half-full is a bottle half-empty." "Yes," said Alice, wondering what was coming now. "Well, multiply both sides by two, and a bottle full is a bottle empty," said the Rabbit. "Well, it is that way in the United States anyhow," said Alice, a little impudently.

  • This quote doesn't indicate that it carries the same meaning that the phrase does today. – DJClayworth Apr 15 at 3:04

Are people perhaps talking about the wrong type of glass? Could it be an hour glass or similar type of glass used on sailing ships to tell periods of time. A weary sailor looks at the glass and asks " is the glass half empty yet"?

  • Hello, Patrick. Conjectural answers are not desirable on ELU. Look at oerkelens' well referenced answer. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 23 '17 at 22:15

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