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I’m interested in the origin of the idiom:

If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas.

When was it first used? Is this the original idiom, or was there an older version? Furthermore, how should its meaning be interpreted?

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The aphorism was coined by the Dallas Cowboys quarterback, Don Meredith, who later became a sports commentator for the TV show Monday Night Football in 1970.

17 December 1970, Ada (OK) Evening News, pg. 7, col. 1:

Howard Cosell: “If Los Angeles wins, it’s a big one, but San Francisco is still very much in it.”
Don Meredith: “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.
Howard: “I didn’t think you’d remember that old canard.”
Don: “Is that what it was?”

Source: Barry Popik.com

The 1970 quip soon became Meredith's catchphrase, but it was a modern and comical twist on a much older proverb dating from the 19th century

If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there’d be no work for tinkers’ hands
Oxford Reference

This proverb is used as a humorous retort to someone expressing a forlorn regret (e.g. if only I had the money...) or an unrealistic and perhaps over optimistic condition (... and if I had the right connections, I could be famous.)

The earliest example I found on Google Books is dated 1845 from The step-mother by George Payne Rainsford James.

Ay! if ifs and ands were pots and pans, there would be no work for the tinkers.

@Sven Yargs has discovered an even earlier example, in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, 1828, from a poem entitled A chapter of Ifs

A Chapter of Ifs

If Ifs and Ands were pots and pans,
’Twould cure the tinker's cares
:
if ladies did not carry fans,
They’d give themselves no airs:
If down the starry skies should fall,
The starlings would be cheap:
If Belles talk'd reason at a ball,
The band might go to sleep.

[…]

And finally, printed in 1821, an excerpt translated from a poem entitled Hans Beudix by the German poet Gottfried August Bürger (1747-1794)

Hans Beudix

Are you there, my old fox, with your ifs and your ans?
But I need not remind you, they're not pots and pans,
Else tinkers would starve, (as I learnt from my nurse;)
Still the answer shall pass, for it might have been worse.

The original German poem can be found here: Der Kaiser und der Abt. Maybe someone can confirm if the translation is faithful.

Below is an Ngram comparing the two aphorisms: Don Meredith's “...buts were candy and nuts” (blue line), and the German/British “ands were pots and pans” (red line) side by side in the American English corpus. The time span is between 1968 and 2008. The 1968-72 results for Meredith's coinage are false positives, so it's always wise to take Ngrams with a pinch of salt. No results are displayed for the American rhyme in the British English corpus.

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If we expand the time scan between 1835 and 2008 we obtain the following

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  • Nice answer, but no, the translation of the german poem is not faithful at all. There is something about " you feed horses with ifs and buts, and the person who invented ifs and buts must be really rich", roughly, but no tinkerers, no nurse, no old fox, and no pots and pans as far as I can see. – skymningen Jan 31 '17 at 9:45
  • @skymningen thanks for the clarification. Good to know that the "ifs and buts" is contained in the original German poem though. – Mari-Lou A Jan 31 '17 at 9:50
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From The Phrase Finder:

"If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, wouldn't it be a Merry Christmas?" seems to be attributed to Don Meredith (the American football player/ commentator). To rephrase it: if all these reasons why we can't do something were party foods instead of words, we could have a really great party.

It would seem to be patterned after "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride" and "If I had a 'coin' for every 'something', I'd have 'a lot of money'" (insert your favorite coin, something and amount of money).

  • 1
    I also enjoy saying things of the form "If I had a 'lot of money' for every 'something', I'd be broke" – jcarpenter2 Sep 8 '14 at 14:40
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It is used to express the fact that "if" and "but" are used too many times, so the speaker of this utterance disapproves of their use.

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    I don't think people would often trot out this "ditty" because they think "if" and "but" are used too often in general. They say it when suggesting a possible course of action or explanation to someone who keeps raising objections using these words. – FumbleFingers Nov 3 '11 at 21:51
  • That's exactly what I meant. Apparently it wasn't clear from the way I wrote it. – Irene Nov 4 '11 at 16:02
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Consistent with Mari-Lou A's excellent answer, Google Books and Elephind newspaper database searches yield no earlier matches for the expression attributed to Don Meredith in 1970:

If "ifs" and "buts" were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas.

However, Elephind does find a somewhat similar (and significantly earlier) sing-song rhyme about "ifs and buts" from Australia. From "They Spoil Everything," in the Perth [Western Australia] Sunday Times (March 14, 1937):

Were "Ifs" and "Buts"/ Just tents and huts,/ How gaily could we hide!/ If "Buts" and "Ifs"/ Were yachts and skiffs/ How merrily we would ride!/ But "Ifs" and "Buts"/ They Interfere/ And spoil the whole affair./ If it were not/ For "Ifs" and "Buts"/ I'd be a millionaire!

It seems unlikely that Meredith (who grew up in a small town east of Dallas, Texas; went to college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; and spent his entire NFL playing career with the Dallas Cowboys) had ever heard the "tents and huts" rhyme before sharing his "candy and nuts" rhyme on TV, but I suspect that he didn't invent his version either. It's the sort of deflating thing that parents and schoolteachers tell children to bring them back down to earth.


'Ifs and buts' before 'candy and nuts' or 'tents and huts'

The phrase "ifs and buts" appears in Google Books search results going back to Luther Martin, Modern Gratitude, in Five Numbers: Addressed to Richard Raynal Keyne, Esq. Concerning a Family Marriage, which includes this outraged footnote:

  1. Precious Hypocrite! "Who with Ifs and Buts would damn fair fame."

I haven't been able to find a source for the sentence that Martin puts in quotation marks.

An Elephind search discovers another seemingly aphoristic expression involving "ifs and buts." From an advertisement headed "Ifs and Buts" in the New-York Daily Tribune (June 20, 1910):

The ifs and buts of life are thicker than confetti at a fair.

Far more common (especially in content from Australian sources) are doggerel/jingle rhyming of "ifs and buts" with "nuts" (or "ruts" or "guts"). From "Old Fashioned Eats," in the [Valley City, North Dakota] Weekly Times Record (August 16, 1917):

No arguments/ With ifs and buts,/ Will e'er excuse/ Such meatless nuts.

From "Gay Adventures," in the Maitland [New South Wales] Daily Mercury (April 11, 1935):

Are you afraid to adventure? Haunted by "ifs" and "buts"? Then how can you hope for the sort of success that's not to be found in ruts? If never a risk you're taking—if you gaze at fortune's tide, and ponder too long your chances—in safety-rut you'll bide!

From "Obvious," in the [Perth, West Australia] Sunday Times (October 1, 1939):

A London society paper states that as a result of the war the usual "nuts" are entirely absent from the swagger cafes in Piccadilly.

Though by ifs and buts/ We're oft repelled,/ May we say that the nuts/ Are away being shelled!

And from "We Australians," in the [Charters Towers, Queensland] Northern Miner (January 29, 1940):

We're a nation young, a nation small,/ Maybe perhaps you're right/ That distance makes our help a pall/ In England's present plight./ We're a nation gay of "ifs and buts"/ "That fool around in mobs,"/ We're a nation, too, that has the guts,/ Minus in titled snobs.

protected by NVZ Jan 30 '17 at 18:35

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