a baby with a hammer

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Nov 5 05:11:04 UTC 2010

Ben helpfully points to the 1966 cite by Abraham Maslow in YBQ. Some
further progress has been made as discussed by Fred Shapiro on the NYT
Quotes Uncovered blog. Charlie Doyle found a great cite in 1962.
"Details will appear in the forthcoming Yale Book of Modern Proverbs."
YBMP is going to be an impressive reference work:


After reading Fred's report I searched. The new benchmark is June 1962.

I like this reversal variant:
With all of Jane Eyre's restlessness but none of her independence, Liz
is the persecuted maiden in a Gothic melodrama: "when you feel like a
nail everything looks like a hammer," ...

On Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 11:03 PM, Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at gmail.com> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: a baby with a hammer
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> 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
> (MIT).
> 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.
> http://bit.ly/aqcCoV
>> 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.
>     VS-)
> 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
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