Sunday, 15 September 2013

The best thing

This is just a short post, making use of Google's Ngram Viewer which we all know and love. In case anyone doesn't know about Ngram, it lets you search for word or phrase usage in books over time and gives you a nice graph. So you can see when certain words or phrases were most popular and things like that.

Anyway, inspired by this phone-in on Alan Partridge's Mid-Morning Matters, where the presenter invites listeners to suggest the "best thing ever" and someone says "sliced bread", I decided to have a do a little bit of research.

According to Wikipedia, sliced bread was first sold in 1928 and yet, according to Ngram, the phrase "best thing since sliced bread" only really started appearing in literature around 1974. However, some slightly less half-hearted research shows that "greatest thing since sliced bread" emerged in 1950 and really gained pace around 1962. If we just use "thing since sliced bread", then the first record is in 1947, three years after the famous pre-sliced bread ban of '43, with a real increase in usage in the 1960s, after which it goes up fairly steadily up to the present day.

It's hard to make cast-iron deductions from this information, but the following are possible:
  • early sliced bread, invented in the 20s, wasn't all that great and only really won over American hearts when it improved dramatically in the 1960s
  • sliced bread was immediately excellent in 1928 but it takes time (around 30-40 years) for phrases like this to develop and find their way into written literature
  • sliced bread was good ever since 1928 but there was something else which was still considered better, the popularity of which declined in the 1960s, opening the way for sliced bread to take its place in the phrase
If we consider that the last of these possibilities is indeed possible, then it might be interesting to know what the idiomatic "best thing" (or "greatest thing" etc.) was before sliced bread. If we run "best thing since" through Ngram, we see it first emerge in 1855, with fairly undular, but not insignificant, activity up to the mid 60s, where a real rise can be observed, similar in trajectory to that of the "thing since sliced bread".

Clearly, all "best thing since" happening before 1928 cannot possibly be referring to sliced bread (unless appearing in some obscure and remarkably prescient sci-fi publications) and, if we believe Ngram, most things before the 1960s and all things before 1947 must have referred to other things too. So what might these have been?

Now the scope of the Massive Blog doesn't allow for a very thorough investigation, but a quick and haphazard click through the links underneath the Ngram give us the following candidates for "best thing" from the period 1800-1914:
  • John Bourne, writing in 1878, "I put this heavy mineral oil as the best thing since compound engines."
  • William Mumford Baker, writing in 1883, "It 's the best thing since the war broke out."
  • The World's Work, in 1903, stating that "As a political novel ... "The Henchman," by Mark Lee Luther, is the best thing since "J. Devlin Boss"".
The other examples of "best thing since" from this period are red herrings, because they include punctuation and use "since" to mean "because". For example, American Poultry Advocate wrote in 1905: "We heard it suggested that it should have a separate building, but this seems to us hardly the best thing, since it would, in a measure, set it off by itself; we would much prefer that this exhibit be a part of the regular poultry exhibit". So these can be discounted.

Also, the second listed example, "best thing since the war broke out" is probably to be treated with caution, as it a) only really works when the war is still going on and b) isn't necessarily putting the outbreak of war as something good to be compared to, but rather suggesting that all has been rotten since this time. Indeed, the third example is also only valid in the context of political novels and so also not really equivalent to the usage of "best thing since sliced bread". So we're left with compound engines as the idiomatic best thing of the 19th Century.

To finish off, because I don't want the post getting too long and you're free to continue the research yourselves, I'll look at the period before "best thing since sliced bread" caught on. Here is one of the more interesting examples:
  • The best thing since ice cream is also the best thing since canned pudding.(Life Magazine, 1971)
This seems to be an advert for Birds Eye's Cool and Creamy Cups, which also contains the slightly nonsensical phrase "you'll think they're the best thing since anything".

It is also slightly odd, because canned pudding is a more recent invention than ice-cream, meaning that the best thing since ice cream would automatically be better than canned pudding, unless you were speaking at a time when canned pudding hadn't yet been invented. Depending on what exactly your feelings are, you should be saying something like: "The best thing since canned pudding would also have been the best thing since ice cream if it had come out before canned pudding had been invented" or "The best thing since ice cream is, just to clarify, also better than canned pudding."

Other examples include "best thing since Voltaire" (1923) and "best thing since we went to the Yalu River in Korea" (1975).

Of all examples, my personal favourite is "the best thing since indoor plumbing", as written in 1988 by Peter S. Wenz. I like this example for two reasons. Firstly, its date, at a time when sliced bread was really taking over, makes us realise just how good indoor plumbing is to be able to compete alongside this great thing. And secondly, it reminds us how lucky we are not to have to go outside and face the elements whenever we want to take advantage of some plumbing: One of life's truly great things.

As briefly mentioned earlier, you're welcome to continue or expand on this research, either by using Ngram or other tools. The Massive Blog always welcomes contributions via the comment function or directly to the author on Twitter @herrbench.


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