"Don't just do something...."

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 2 12:07:16 UTC 2011

Thanks to Jonathan Lighter for pointing out this entertaining phrase.
And thanks to Dan Goncharoff and Michael Quinion for providing
intriguing information.

The earliest cite I have located so far is dated 1945. Prominent
columnist Leonard Lyons attributed the words to theatrical producer
Martin Gabel. The quip was reused and reattributed many times after
this appearance. As shown further below the same columnist, Lyons, in
1956 reported the testimony of Adlai Stevenson who attributed an
instance of the phrase to President Eisenhower. Here are selected

Cite: 1945 September 01, San Mateo Times, Broadway Medley by Leonard
Lyons, Page 8, Editorial Page, Column 5, San Mateo, California.

At the first rehearsal of Irwin Shaw's play, "The Assassin," Producer
Martin Gabel noticed a young actress gesticulating wildly instead of
remaining motionless. Gabel shouted: "Don't just do something; stand

Cite: 1954 April 30, Boston Globe, Sitting in with Ted Ashby: It's
What the Man Said, Start Page 21, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google News
archive; ProQuest Abstract only; Verified only by examining abstract
and not the full article)

THERE IS a national, nonprofit organization which advocates
paraphrasing an irritating directive. to wit: "Don't just stand
there.... DO something!" The group, which has dedicated itself to
happier living through inertness, would change it to: "Don't just do
something.... STAND there!

Cite: 1954 October 25, El Paso Herald-Post, Females 16 to 60 Aflutter
Over Two Future TV Idols by Faye Emerson, Page 7, Column 3, El Paso,
Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

A TV director had to deal with one of those young actresses of the new
school the other day. She was fluttering her hands, mussing her hair,
and in general trying to be as much like Geraldine Page as possible.
The director finally shouted, "Don't just do something. Stand there!"

Dan Goncharoff found the following excellent citation that shows Adlai
Stevenson using the phrase.

Cite: 1956 February 26, New York Times, Stevenson Gibes at the
President as Inept 'Coach', by Richard H. Parke, [Start Page 1] Page
65, New York. (ProQuest)

He [Adlai Stevenson] said he had "figured out what the Republican
orators mean by what they call moderate progressivism." All they mean,
he said, is "don't just do something! Stand there!"

Months after using the phrase himself Stevenson put the quip into the
mouth of Eisenhower according to columnist Lyons.

Cite: 1956 May 21, Chicago Defender, Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Page
5, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

THE TRAVELER: Adlai Stevenson tells this story about John Foster
Dulles: The President managed to catch a glimpse of Dulles while he
was temporarily in this country. And the President said to the
Secretary of State: "Don't just do something. Stand there."

William Safire used the humorous injunction in his New York Times
column on October 21, 1987, but he did not attempt to trace it.

(The version of ProQuest that I have access to does not have the
Boston Globe in 1954. If you have access and would be willing to send
me a PDF of the article mentioned below that would be very nice of
you. If you wish I will try to trace a quote, proverb, expression or
word for you.)


On Sun, May 1, 2011 at 6:51 PM, Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at gmail.com> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Jonathan Lighter <wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      "Don't just do something...."
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> CNN person: "There's a joke on Wall Street: 'Don't just do something, Stand
> there.'"  In other words, don't take part in a buying or selling panic.
> But it isn't just on Wall Street. GB reveals thousands of exx., with varying
> nuances.
> The earliest is allegedly from Newsweek, vol. 45 (1955). I can't verify the
> date, but the snippet congruously mentions Gwen Verdon in _Damn Yankees_:
> "...once made a rehearsal director shout, 'Don't just do something! Stand
> there!'"
> The phrase appears regularly since the mid '50s.
> JL
> --
> "If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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