a baby with a hammer

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Fri Nov 5 03:03:44 UTC 2010

I am with Wilson on this one and believe that "a baby with a hammer" is
an innovation, a variant on an old proverb. Of course, "old" could mean
30 year or 200. But it's certainly well before 1997 (my college years
predate that by 10+ years and that's where *I* learned the expression).

Sure enough, two of the top three GB hits pre-1990 are from different
issues of InfoWorld.

Unsurprisingly, the first appears in the July 9, 1984, issue in a letter
responding specifically to a slightly different version in a June 4 article:

"When you've got a hammer, you look for some nails."

The author suggests two other variants. One supposedly original and one
was suggested as applying better "to our profession" (programmer):

"When you've got a good hammer, everything looks like a nail."
"When you've got a good hammer, you beat everything to death."

Another letter appeared on August 20, 1984, "correcting" the previously
issued versions.

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Of course, /this/ writer blames it all on ... Mark Twain.

Needless to say, this "old aphorism" soon became a metaphor for
technological change--which is, in turn, why I first heard it in college

That's not all. GB also gives as 1984 the pub date for Allan Cohen's
Effective Behavior in Organizations. His quote is a bit different and
yet somehow familiar:

> To a child with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

A publication that may or may not be a RAND Corporation paper from 1980
replaces "child" with "small boy".

A 1982 pub calls it "The Law of the Hammer", yet, in 1976, it was
already known as "The Law of the Tool" (and, yes, tied to technological
change). GB claims that the earliest appearance--and the earliest
reference to Mark Twain can be found in The Economist in 1973: The
Economist, Volume 384, Issues 8544-8548 (no page given, but it's nice to
narrow it to just 4 issues, at least, theoretically). I have not
verified the accuracy of this record. The snippet appears in the
preview, but not on the page.

> To a man with a hammer, Mark Twain once said, everything looks like a
> nail. One hammer that has seen lots of use in recent years is the type
> of mathematical relationship known as a power-law distribution.

Well, here's the obvious question--if it /was/ Mark Twain, how come
there are no earlier records /in books/??

Several other appearances, dated in the 1980s, identify an old
proverb/aphorism or a "well-known surgeon" as the source. One attributes
it to Maslow. (http://bit.ly/dgIlFa) Actually, make that two.
(http://bit.ly/aRPdVq --coincidentally, both also in 1984.)

Google News Archives are not of much help.


On 11/4/2010 2:08 PM, Wilson Gray wrote:
> On Tue, Oct 26, 2010 at 12:50 PM, Jonathan Lighter
> <wuxxmupp2000 at gmail.com>  wrote:
>> 1997 C. Fred Alford _What Evil Means to Us_ (Ithaca: Cornell U. P.) 4: A man
>> with a method is like a baby with a hammer. Everything looks like a nail. I
>> trust I am not this baby, but my method frames the manuscript.
> How about the variant, "To a man who has a hammer, everything looks
> like a nail"? I heard it on some TV drama. I remember it because, at
> the time, it struck me as a very lame attempt to portray deep,
> Oriental, philosophical thinking of the "Confucius-say" type.
> I'd google it myself, but I'm trying to catch up on a multitude of
> e-mails and do a wash at the same time. :-)
> --
> -Wilson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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