Q: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jun 1 16:18:29 UTC 2010

Thanks to Joel Berson for a pointer to the updated entry in Wikipedia.
Anthony Oettinger did use the two phrases "Time flies like an arrow"
and "Fruit flies like a banana" in a Scientific American article in


The 1965 cite given in Wikipedia is to a book that is describing the
work of Anthony Oettinger and Susumu Kuno. Here is some more extracted
text from "The computer age and its potential for management" by
Gilbert Burck:

… by Anthony Oettinger and Susumu Kuno of Harvard's Computation
Laboratory permits a computer to list all possible meanings. "Time
flies like an arrow" may seem fairly straightforward to us, but a
machine sees a number of other possibilities— for example, "Time the
speed of flies as quickly as you can" ("time" being interpreted as a
verb rather than a noun) and "Certain flies enjoy an arrow" ("time"
being interpreted as an adjective, and "like" being interpreted as a
verb). The machine could be instructed to rule out these particular
offbeat parsings, but how would it handle the sentence, "Fruit flies
like bananas"?

It is possible that the example sentences were provided to the author,
Gilbert Burck, by the researchers Anthony Oettinger and Susumu Kuno.

The Wikipedia writer refers to an "early appearance in print, in
slightly modified form" because Burck uses the phrase "Fruit flies
like bananas" instead of the more rigorously parallel "Fruit flies
like a banana", I think.

The work of Oettinger and Kuno is also described two years earlier in
a 1963 article in Science News.

Cite: 1963 November 30, The Science News-Letter, Harvard Computer
Finds English Language Fuzzy, Page 346, Vol. 84, No. 22, Society for
Science & the Public. (JSTOR)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3946569

This article mentions the "Time flies like an arrow" example, but does
not mention "Fruit flies like a banana".

I think that the teaching materials at the Harvard University Archives
are a good location to look for an antedating as you suggest.


On Tue, Jun 1, 2010 at 9:58 AM, Joel S. Berson <Berson at att.net> wrote:
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> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson" <Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Q: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."
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> Fred:
> Wikipedia claims the YBQ traces "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit
> flies like a banana." back to 1982 but it appears "in slightly
> modified form" in 1962  (that is, with the two sentences not
> juxtaposed.)  Wikipedia quotes Gilbert Burck (1965). The computer age
> and its potential for management. Harper & Row. p. 62.
> I believe I heard it said -- or saw it actually written on the
> blackboard/shown from a slide/handed out in course material ! --
> between 1956 and 1958 by Prof. Anthony Oettinger of Harvard in a
> classroom presentation on the difficulties of computer translation of
> human languages.  Some of Oettinger's early published (or accessible)
> writings on automatic language translation date from 1954 (his Ph. D.
> thesis) through 1961.
> I also see that the papers of Anthony Oettinger are held by the
> Harvard University Archives, including "Course Materials for Applied
> Math and Linguistics", "teaching material for courses in applied
> mathematics, linguistics, educational technology, and
> communication."  The course materials include "Mathematical
> linguistics handouts, 1957-1959".
> What say ye?
> Joel
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