Who is the Fat Lady When the Fat Lady Sings?

February 5, 2023

An illustration of the fat lady sings, from The Valkyrie, by Richard Wagner.

“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” We’ve all probably heard that phrase once or more in our lives, which means the outcome of an event is unknown until it is finished. It just so happens there is more to this saying. The proper statement is, “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.” But who is the fat lady, and why is it over after she sings?

We can deduce from the statement that the lady is an opera singer, and she is generally considered to represent the character Brünnhilde in The Valkyrie, an opera by German composer Richard Wagner. Brünnhilde was traditionally portrayed by a larger woman wearing a horned helmet and carrying a spear and round shield. Her aria lasts about twenty minutes and leads to the finish of the opera. While The Valkyrie was composed in the mid-1800s, the actual colloquialism is much more recent.

The phrase was first attributed to Dan Cook, a San Antonio, Texas, sportswriter and broadcaster, in May 1978. During a sports broadcast of a playoff game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Washington Bullets, Cook used the phrase to describe the Spurs being behind in the playoffs and that they could still pull off a win. The Bullets head coach, Dick Motta, liked the phrase and borrowed it as the team’s motto as the bullets continued into the playoffs. But this wasn’t the first time the saying had been uttered.

In March 1976, the Dallas Morning News recorded the first use of the phrase when it was used during an NCAA basketball game between the Texas Tech Red Raiders and the Texas A&M Aggies. Here’s what the article stated:

Despite his obvious allegiance to the Red Raiders, Texas Tech sports information director Ralph Carpenter was the picture of professional objectivity when the Aggies rallied for a 72–72 tie late in the SWC tournament finals. “Hey, Ralph,” said Bill Morgan, “this… is going to be a tight one after all.” “Right,” said Ralph, “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”

While these instances helped the phrase to become nationally known, there are other very similar phrases. Yogi Berra said his famous phrase, “it ain’t over till it’s over,” during the 1973 National League pennant race. There was an even older version of the phrase from the Southern United States that said, “the church ain’t out till the fat lady sings.” This one specifically referenced the “fat lady.” Other phrases have a similar meaning, such as, “don’t count your chickens before they hatch,” and “nothing is carved in stone.”

Sources: World Wide Words, The Straight Dope, SB Nation, Die Walküre (Wikipedia)

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Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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