This variant of the saying probably comes from signal processing. It is in Wikipedia somewhat attributed to Edward W. Ng (his "famous quotes", 1990 interview in NYT) however that cannot be correct, as Google Books has matches the 1960s: Google Books

Closely related question: Origin of "one man's trash is another man's treasure"

A direct predecessor probably is: "one man's noise may be another man's music".

And the oldest version probably is by Lucretius, ca. first century BC (thanks, Andrew Leach):

"What is food to one, is to others bitter poison."

So assume I want to use the "signal – noise" variant of this saying, how should I attribute it? I of course did not make it up myself, but it is from before christ; however this specific "singal processing" adaption is probably from the 1960s. Obviously I can cite Lucretius, or Edward W. Ng, or one of the matches in the 60s...

  • Do you know any good early source of this variant of the idiom that I could cite?
  • Is there a good alternative way of using this quote as introduction to a topic? Should I write "vernacular" as source instead?
  • I think you should be asking if you need to attribute at all. If you are quoting the original (food...poison), may be it's understandable. However, anyone can create a play/ pun on the original in any way one likes. See the number of instances in the news/ op-eds/ blogs everyday. If still in doubt, ask on writersSE. – Kris Oct 31 '12 at 4:56

It's Lucretius: One man's meat is another man's poison.

It was coined in the first century BC by the Latin writer Lucretius, in the form "quod ali cibus est aliis fuat acre venenum" (what is food for one man may be bitter poison to others). It was first translated into English in 1604 by the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton: One mans meate, is another mans poyson.

See also: Lucretius - Wikiquote

  • Thanks. I've added this to the question, and I tried to emphasize that I'm primarily interested in the specific noise-vs.-signal variation of it. – Anony-Mousse Oct 30 '12 at 16:02

As the phrase dates back centuries and has been modified many, many times since then, it's entirely likely that more than one person has independently come up with “one man's noise is another man's signal”, especially as it's also a play on another variation, "one man's noise is another man's music".

Q: Do you know any good early source of this variant of the idiom that I could cite?

A possible 1960 can be found in Reference Quarterly by the American Library Association:

In primary human communication one man's noise may be another man's signal.

A possible 1964 is in the Westinghouse Engineer, Volume 24, Issues 1-6 by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation:

Since one man's noise is another man's signal, this last relation can be used to derive the lifetime of the carriers ...

Note that both of these snippets may be misdated and I didn't find the authors' names, and also note they they didn't cite a source.

Q: Is there a good alternative way of using this quote as introduction to a topic? Should I write "vernacular" as source instead?

It's not especially original, so you can just use the text as is, as many others have done when using any number of variations. But if you want to cite someone, here's some ideas:

  • Edward Ng, New York Times 1990 [because it's from a well-known source]
  • 20th century variation of Lucretius (1st century BC)
  • "to paraphrase an old adage"

If Edward Ng's quotation and its wider context in the New York Times article is especially apt for you, then feel free to use that.

  • 1
    I had seen that RQ result (see the Google Books link in my question). However the year apparently is incorrect, I've had the same result returned as 1973, and the snippets seem to cite 1973 books. I guess I'll quote Edward Ng and mention Lucretius. If at all. – Anony-Mousse Oct 31 '12 at 16:13
  • @Anony-Mousse: Yeah, you have to be careful with snippets in Google Books, they have a tendency to get the dates wrong and sometimes put include more than one book under the same entry. – Hugo Oct 31 '12 at 20:15

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