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I recently received a Facebook notification from an online quotation site, which attributed the following saying to Frank Zappa:

A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.

I checked a couple of relevant reference works—The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, third edition (1979), which is good for older famous quotations, and The [Yale] Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (2012), which is excellent for proverbs coined within the past 100 years—but neither of them had any entry for this saying.

My question is simply this: Who is the originator of this saying—and when was it first recorded?

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Early instances of 'A mind is like a parachute...'

The quotation appears in several sources from the late 1930s in the Elephind newspaper database. One is from H.J. Gramlich, "Substitute Feeds Which the Drought Has Caused Us to Use," in Report of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, Control Division, for the Quarter Ending September, 1938 (1938):

Let’s keep open-minded. They say a man's mind is like a parachute in that it only functions when it is open. I believe this can be applied to the situation existent relative to the acceptance of new feeds available for use in livestock-management practice.

And from Alan Mogensen, "Fundamentals of Human Engineering," in the Cornell Engineer (October 1939):

Someone once said that the mind is like a parachute—it functions only when it is open. If I only could know the exact state of everybody's mind, whether it is open or closed, we could really make progress. We would not waste time on points to which you already agree, and we could adequately cover the ones that you may question.

Fred Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations (2006) offers this coverage of the quotation:

Thomas Robert Dewar

Scottish distiller, 1864–1930

Minds are like parachutes: they only function when open.

Quoted in Evan Esar, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (1949). Usually attributed to Dewar, but it should be noted that the line "mind like parachute—only function when open!" appears in the 1936 film Charlie Chan at the Circus (screenplay by Robert Ellis and Helen Logan).

The fact that Charlie Chan invokes the saying in a 1936 film takes Frank Zappa out of the running as the originator of the phrase, since he was not born until December 21, 1940. But Shapiro reblurs the picture by presenting us instead with a new competition between Lord Tommy Dewar the distiller and the two screenplay writers responsible for Charlie Chan at the Circus. Which of them deserves credit?

The quotation from Charlie Chan at the Circus (at 59:12–59:20) is earlier than either of the two instances noted above:

Chan: Not always wise to accept simplest solution. Mind like parachute: only function when open.

The movie was released on March 27, 1936, and is based on an original screenplay rather than a book adaptation.

But earlier still is this instance from "How to Listen In: An Ancient Practice," a sermon by Pastor Vanham, quoted in the Rockhampton [Queensland] Morning Bulletin (January 19, 1935):

Lord Dewar has aptly said that the mind is like a parachute in this—it only functions when it is open.

This 1935 Rockhampton Morning Bulletin instance is the earliest one I could find that uses the singular form of "a mind" and "a parachute." But Shapiro’s Book of Quotations suggests that the original quotation may involve plural „minds“ and „parachutes,“ not singular "a mind" and "a parachute." In any event, Dewar died in 1930, so when did he first pronounce the famous simile?


Early instances of 'Minds are like parachutes...'

The earliest verifiable match for "minds are like parachutes" that turns up in a Google Books search is from "Notes," in Tax Facts (October 1927), a periodical printed in Los Angeles, California:

Minds are like parachutes: They function only when they are open.Louisville Times.

The earliest instance of the phrase that an Elephind newspaper database search finds repeats the Tax Facts wording exactly but omits any attribution. From "Stage and Screen," in the Coronado [California] Eagle and Journal (November 15, 1927) doesn’t include any attribution for the quotation:

Minds are like parachutes: They function only when they are open.

The first Australian instance of the expression doesn’t mention Dewar either.

From "The Passing Show, " in the [Brisbane, Queensland] Worker (November 23, 1927):

From American Papers

Minds are like parachutes—they function only when they are open.—Louisville [Kentucky] "Times."

A similar mention appears in the [Hay, New South Wales] Riverine Grazier (January 3, 1928):

Fun from American Papers.

Minds are like parachutes— they function only when they are open.—Louisville 'Times.'

Dewar’s name is first associated with the quotation in the Australian press in "Lord Dewar’s Open Mind: A Night with the Spiritualists," in the Adelaide [South Australia] Chronicle (April 28, 1928):

Lord Dewar, the maker of witty epigrams, appeared in a new role on March 11, when he took part in a spiritualist meeting at Queen’s Hall, London, arranged by the Spiritualist Alliance, with Sir Frank Benson in the chair, to discuss evidence of survival.

In explaining his presence on the platform with such well-known spiritualists as Mr. Dennis Bradley and Mr. Hannen Swaffer, he said:—"I have an open mind. Minds are like parachutes—they function only when they are open. I believe in collecting information on every important topic and verifying it. That is why I am here tonight—in the spirit of enquiry."

This account is interesting for several reasons. First, it introduces Dewar as a maker of witty epigrams. Second, it emphasizes his participation in a spiritualist meeting as being "a new role" for him. And third, it quotes his apropos remark about open minds in connection with his participation in this event—as if it were not a saying he was already known for. And yet we know that the saying had already been published—in November 1927, four months earlier—in a California newspaper, and that it had also appeared in a Kentucky newspaper (of unspecified date), and that Australian newspapers had begun citing it in November 1927 as well.

In an item published on June 8, 2013, Barry Popik, The Big Apple, reports that U.S. newspapers began citing the Louisville Times as the source of the saying at least as early as October 20, 1927, when it appeared in the [Ogden City, Utah] Standard Examiner. He also points out a version of the Adelaide Chronicle article crediting Dewar with the saying that appeared in the [Salt Lake City, Utah] Deseret News of April 7, 1928.

These finds push the first U.S. occurrence of the expression (not attributed to Dewar) back 25 days and the first spiritualism-related occurrence of the saying (attributed to Dewar) back 21 days—but the Adelaide account of that instance had already specified March 11 as the date of Dewar’s remark, so the net effect of Popik's citations is to widen the distance between the unattributed U.S. version of the quotation and Dewar’s use of the quotation from roughly four months to almost five months—with the further consideration that the first confirmed U.S. instance of the saying attributes it to an even earlier appearance (of unspecified date) in the Louisville Times.

Popik opines that the Louisville newspaper would likely have cited Dewar if he had been the (recent) source of the bon mot; that seems reasonable but not entirely dispositive. Further circumstantial support comes, however, from five instances of the expression that appear in British newspapers in November 1927.

From a garbled OCR snippet that the British Newspaper Archives presents under the heading "Man Who 'Transmitted' Himself a Fortune," in the Liverpool [Lancashire] Echo (October 29, 1927):

... are like parachutes: They function °say when they are open.— Louis%ille ...

From "What America Thinks," in the Hull [Yorkshire] Daily Mail (November 11, 1927) [combined snippets, with obvious typos corrected]:

Some people have tact, and others tell the truth.

Minds are like parachutes: they function only when they are open.

Under the law a man is presumed innocent until he is proved guilty; and some are guilty after they are proved innocent.

From "Smart American Sayings," in the Northampton [Northamptonshire] Chronicle and Echo (November 11, 1927) [ungarbled snippet]:

Minds are like parachutes: they function when they are open.

From "Day by Day," in the Dundee [Angus] Evening Telegraph (November 16, 1927) [snippet]:

Some people have tact, and others tell the truth.

We hear quite lot of hoarse sense at open-air meetings.

Minds are like parachutes; they function only when they are open.

New anti-Carol law. Let us hope they pass it before Christmas.

And from "First of the Arts," in the Aberdeen [Aberdeenshire] Press and Journal (November 18, 1927) [combined snippets]:

American Flashes.

Some people have tact, and others tell the truth.

Minds are like parachutes: they function only when they are open.

The statement that the sexes are equal mentally will be taken as a compliment many husbands.

Four of these five instances explicitly credit either "America" or "Louisille" for the quotation—and the fifth evidently draws its set of clever sayings from the same well that the others used. None of the five mentions Lord Dewar. In fact, the first association of Dewar with the saying in a British publication occurs about a year later in "Lord Dewar in Good Form," in the Aberdeen [Aberdeenshire] Press and Journal (November 29, 1928) [combined snippets], an account of remarks he offered at a dinner following the Gimcrack Stakes (which his horse won):

A wave of pessimism always accompanies the birth of great truths —the same might be said about twins. Patience is the greatest of all shock absorbers. The only thing you can get a hurry is trouble. Minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open.

Thus, the same paper that called the parachute saying an "American Flash" in November 1927 ascribed it to Lord Dewar’s "good form" a year later. Four other British newspapers—in Leeds, Gloucester, Sheffield, and Dundee—reported the same aphorism by Dewar at this dinner in stories published on November 29, 1928.


Conclusions

It seems extremely likely that the saying "Minds are like parachutes: they only function when they are open" originated in the United States and was first publicized in October 1927, possibly in an item in the Louisville Times, a newspaper whose humorous sayings appeared occasionally in the recurring columns that contemporaneous British newspapers dedicated to amusing American expressions. Lord Thomas Dewar seems to have had the raconteur's gift for appropriating amusing sayings from the public domain and then repeating them often enough to gain credit for them as (in his case) "Dewarisms"—and with "Minds are like parachutes" he didn’t have far to look, since the expression appeared in multiple British newspapers in October and November 1927.

If someone were to find the October (or September) 1927 issue of the Louisville Times that contains the newspaper’s much-cited early occurrence of the expression, it might provide further details about how the expression first emerged. For now, though, we have no firm basis for venturing beyond Barry Popik's conclusion that "The authorship of the saying is unknown."

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  • So the conclusion is to keep an open mind about the attribution.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 5:54
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    @Lawrence: My conclusion is that Dewar almost certainly wasn't the originator of the phrase—that it instead probably came from an unknown source in the United States. But I have no basis for concluding with confidence whether it first appeared in a Louisville newspaper and, if it did, what the circumstances surrounding that occurrence are. Beyond that, yes: I am keeping an open mind about who might have coined the expression and where. I hope that someone with access to paid newspaper database services may be able to find the Louisville Times instance from 1927, if not something earlier.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 6:04

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