fun with phrases

Wed Oct 19 15:14:53 UTC 2011

        My understanding of Friedman's claim is that he took an existing phrase that is sometimes seen on signs in stores that sell breakables (though not, I understand, at Pottery Barn), gave it a name, and applied it to international relations.  He did not claim to have invented the phrase itself, and what he did wouldn't have made much sense if he had.

        I remember seeing the phrase myself on a sign in a store that sold souvenirs; I'm hazy on the date, but it may have been the late 1970s.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Laurence Horn
Sent: Wednesday, October 19, 2011 10:33 AM
Subject: Re: fun with phrases

"You broke it, you bought it"

This just turned up as part of a dialogue taking place in 1938 in a recent novel, _Rules of Civility_, and I was wondering if it was anachronistic.  I didn't see much pre-1990s in Google Books for this, and the fact that this dictum is sometimes referred to (e.g. in NYT op-eds a while back about the Iraq war; see below) as "the Pottery Barn rule" makes me wonder if it could really have been around in the 1930s.  Of course it has variants, none of which I tracked in GB, and what's relevant here is the metaphorical use--as applied in current love songs to the narrator's heart (directed to ex-lover) or political contexts like the U.S. economy (e.g. in Occupy Wall Street posters, directed to bankers).  The wikipedia site,, notes that

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman claims to have coined the term, having used the phrase "the pottery store rule" in a February 12, 2003, column. He has said he referred to Pottery Barn specifically in speeches.

But this is clearly wrong, although perhaps he's the first to (almost) coin "the Pottery Barn rule" to name the dictum. One of the GB hits is for a 1972 script for the New York Shakespeare Company, but it appears to be a literal usage:
SALESMAN:   "That machine is yours, lady."
MOSSIE:         "I cain't work it!"
SALESMAN:   "You broke it, you bought it."

But there are certainly pre-Friedman metaphorical uses, such as one in an explanation of how karma works (from a 2002 book, _Karma 101: What Goes Around Comes Around_) or a reference to welfare reform (from a 1988 book) ["In colloquial terms, this argument might be expressed as follows: if you didn't break it, you didn't buy it - but if you broke it, you bought it. Since service programs - for example, what kind of education policy to have..."] or a 2000 book called _On becoming teenwise_ ["Fifth Law of Correction: If Financial Liability Occurs, the Teen Should Make Restitution. In the real world, "If you broke it, you bought it." It shouldn't be any different for your teen."]

Notice that the last two employ the less pithy version with an overt conditional marker ("If...").

[minor spoiler alert for anyone planning to read _Rules of Civility_]

In the novel, Eve, a poor but plucky and stylish Midwestern transplant to NYC uses the phrase in rationalizing to her ex-flatmate, the narrator Katie, why their rich, urbane friend Tinker--who had been driving in the serious accident that led to Eve's severe injuries and at least temporary disfigurement--has been taking such good care of her.
Earlier in the novel, when Eve and Katie first encounter Tinker at a club on New Year's Eve, Eve calls out "Dibs!"  I was wondering if the author, Amor Towles, was anachronizing here, but the OED has a first cite for the relevant use of "dibs" in 1932, so no problem here.  "You broke it, you bought it" I'm not so sure about.

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