Who first "made it sing"?
January 27, 2014 10:12 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of "making it sing," as in to cause something to be at its best, be it an instrument, weapon, machine, or anything else?

I was interested in including the origin of the phrase "make it sing" and its variations ("he really made that thing sing" or "if you tighten that up, it'll really sing,") in an article, but I am surprised to find that the phrase is apparently not as common as I thought, or perhaps not a phrase at all -- there is very little in the way of he/she/it "making it sing" in the usual spots for phrases and etymologies. Anyone have a clue?
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Just digging through the google books corpora, looks like the earliest metaphorical use of it (that is, not referring to something literally singing) relates to advertising in the 1930s.
posted by empath at 12:13 AM on January 28, 2014

I would expect that it's a term that comes from sailing.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:34 AM on January 28, 2014

A lot of terms do come from sailing, but I don't think this one does. I've done a lot of traditional sailing and read a lot of 19th-century sailing manuscripts, and it's not a phrase I've ever encountered in that context.

I'm also looking through Google books, and though it's a common enough construction, one very often-repeated sense in which "make it sing" appears has to do with making caged birds, especially canaries but also finches and a few other species, sing. There's a disturbing number of references to the idea of "putting a bird's eyes out" to make it sing, but thankfully there are other strategies to "make it sing." I searched 1850-1900 and found a lot of that usage and related phrases. I can see how the phrase might migrate into advertising exhortations.
posted by Miko at 5:38 AM on January 28, 2014

I always assumed the term related to virtuoso-level playing of the violin.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:48 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've mainly heard it used in culinary work, as "to make your vegetables sing, do this..."
posted by mmiddle at 6:39 AM on January 28, 2014

If it helps you search, I believe the sense intended by the phrase is "in harmony".

A sailing vessel, a weapon system, a website, a burocracy, a recipe, a theory of universal grammar -- any contrivance comprising many individual parts -- is said to "sing" when all the parts work well together. In harmony.

That fact that it's not covered in online dictionaries and not well-attested in the literature is a good thing. It means we still own it.

Sorry I can't offer any early attestations. Check with the OED, maybe?

Look under both 'sing' and 'make'. The offerings of lexicographers and thesaurians can be somewhat discordant at times.
posted by Herodios at 7:13 AM on January 28, 2014

A sharp knife edge is said to "sing" when you brush it with your thumb. No idea if it's related or which came first, but it's a literal description based on the actual sound it makes compared to a dull blade.
posted by jsturgill at 8:17 AM on January 28, 2014

My hunch is it's a smithing term. Here's an undated poem "from legendary and other sources" published in 1898:
Hammer, hammer, hammer, hammer,
All through the day,
Yet the Anvil mid the clamour
Sings a merry lay.
But here's an 1825 reference to making a harpsichord or piano-forte sing.
posted by Zed at 8:48 AM on January 28, 2014

And a 1771 reference to "make the inſtrument ſing".
posted by Zed at 9:01 AM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The rabbit hole just gets deeper! I feel like the idiomatic use must go back beyond the last hundred years certainly, and I also had the feeling it was smithing-related, like the ringing noise that a piece will make when hammered at the proper rate.

Thanks for your contributions... though I welcome more, since we don't seem to have come to any absolute conclusion.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:09 AM on January 28, 2014

The OED isn't much help... they have citations for objects metaphorically singing going back to the 16th century, but none I could find under make or sing, or by doing a full-text search, to "make it sing" prior to late 19th.
posted by Zed at 11:09 AM on January 28, 2014

I wonder if there's any interaction between the usages above and the idea of a machine "humming" (i.e. running smoothly/well). Especially since the faster some things run the higher-pitched the sound.
posted by trig at 11:26 AM on January 28, 2014

Well, there's a 19th century biography of the painter Edward Burne-Jones^ that traces the specifically metaphorical and modern usage as far back as the 18th-century:

Edward was greatly interested in hearing all that he could remember concerning John Flower of Leicester^, his first drawing master, who used to encourage his pupils to go on with their work or to carry it to a good end, by saying, "Make it sing to you, sir! Make it sing to you!" Edward adopted the phrase, and often repeated it about his own pictures: "I haven't made it sing yet -- It is beginning to sing," and so on.

This doesn't point to a particular metaphorical origin, though; it just demonstrates that it was in use separate from that origin a very long time ago.
posted by dhartung at 1:28 PM on January 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Looks like it's a little too hazy a phrase to pin down in the precise way I hoped for — but this has been extremely helpful, guys. I'm going to mark the question answered, since "there doesn't appear to be an authoritative answer" is helpful in itself!

If anyone finds any further information (this question is already appearing on the first page of Google for some queries) please do post or message me if the question gets shut down. Thanks again!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2014

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