Metafilter: The Great Indoors
May 8, 2014 9:12 AM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the phrase, "the great outdoors?"
posted by michaelh to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
According to Google's ngram tool "the great outdoors" first appeared circa 1840. Which, incidentally, coincided with Thoreau's time (though I do not know if he used that phrase).
posted by dfriedman at 9:29 AM on May 8, 2014

Response by poster: I didn't find it in Walden. Google Books has this reference in 1840, but surely that can't have been so influential.

ngram says 1838, but I don't see it in Oliver Twist or Arthur Gordon Pym and I'm not sure what else was popular in English.
posted by michaelh at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2014

The ngram tool is based on appearances of the phrase in Google Books, and the problem with Google Books is that all periodicals are counted as of the date of the first issue, rather than the issue date in which the words appeared. The 1840s instances are for usage in magazines and other serials at a much later date, where the magazine was launched in the 1840s. But using Google Books search tools/search by date, and then selecting just books and not magazines, you can narrow it down to the earliest book publication date, which I think is this one from 1877. The way it is used there indicates it is commonly understood, so that's certainly not the "source," which is probably that it was in general spoken usage for some time before. Someone with access to the Newspaper Archive can probably find some earlier instances.

But if you examine the history of mid-19th century you'll find a lot of movements focused on "the great outdoors" including the Hudson River school of painting, the founding of the Chautauqua movement, John Muir's environmentalism, etc. all urging a renewed appreciation for nature, wilderness, and outdoor recreation as an antidote to the unhealthy aspects of cities and the industrial revolution. So my guess is that it grew out of one of those movements.
posted by beagle at 9:52 AM on May 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

The OED has earlier citations for "out-of-doors" than for "outdoors" in the concrete sense of "the world outside." You might investigate that variation too.
posted by Bromius at 9:54 AM on May 8, 2014

Google Books has this reference in 1840,
But if you look at the typography of that snippet, it's clearly 20th century and that publication date is incorrect.
posted by beagle at 9:54 AM on May 8, 2014

From p.275 of Henry Ward Beecher's Eyes and Ears (1862), "Except the great out-doors, nothing that has no life of its own gives so much life to you." That passage seems to have been reprinted in a number of late 19th century anthologies.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:59 AM on May 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

A newspaper article in 1860, it already sounds like a cliche.
posted by interplanetjanet at 11:22 AM on May 8, 2014

(Favourited for most excellent title!)
posted by progosk at 1:41 PM on May 8, 2014

The 1840 Google Books snippet is from a 1978 omnibus of American political platforms, 1840-1956. Based on phrases like "wise conservation and sound development of our national resources" and "federal lands not needed for national programs"--and the fact that it's from page 618--I'd guess it's from the very end of that period.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 6:27 AM on May 9, 2014

The oldest thing I can find on Google Books is from 1852.

There is this from 1819 but the author doesn't seem to be using the phrase with its modern meaning. Honestly I've read it several times and I'm not sure what he means. I'm obviously missing some context. But I think the "great" is modifying advocate not out-doors. So he's talking about a great advocate who is out-doors, not an advocate for the "great out-doors"
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:35 AM on May 9, 2014

The 1852 reference is a good find, that actually is the date of the issue I which the phrase appears, and not the start of the serial.

I had looked at the 1819 one but concluded the same thing, that "great" in that instance modifies "advocate of the Libraries" and not "out-doors". (And yes, it's hard to parse the meaning but the overall passage is about the extension of copyright protection beyond 28 years, a debate we are still having...)
posted by beagle at 5:58 AM on May 10, 2014

Poking around a bit more on the 1819 reference -- it appears that "out-of-doors" at the time was used in Parliament to refer to anything going on outside their chamber. So the Librarian, not being a Member, was an out-of-doors advocate (as would have been the original lobbyists, restricted to staying in the lobby outside the doors). In this instance out-of-doors was shortened to out-doors, but that did not become common practice when referring to non-Members.
posted by beagle at 6:09 AM on May 10, 2014

Thanks beagle! I could figure out it was generally about copyright but I was stumped as to why libraries would be out doors.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:59 AM on May 10, 2014

But wait, there's more:

By the early 1800s, it appears that the phrase "out-of-doors" had morphed into "outdoors" as applied generally to the world outside of buildings, and the idea of the "great outdoors" was budding, as shown in this passage in a hugely popular series of stories entitled The Clockmaker, or the Sayings and Doings of Samuel Slick of Slicksville. Written in a style intentionally reflecting and quoting vernacular usage, the linked page include this bit: "I think I see him astanding with his hands in his trouser-pockets, alooking as big as all outdoors, and as sour as cider sot out in the sun for vinegar." (This particular volume, not the first in the series, was "The Bubbles of Canada" published in 1839.)

A bit later, in an 1849 book review in a Massachusetts magazine that counted Ralph Waldo Emerson among its editors, we find this: "The open air breathes through his writings, and in reading him we often have a feeling (to use a local phrase), of all outdoors." [italics in the original]

This confirms that "all outdoors" was a local usage in New England with a meaning very similar to "the great outdoors." The book being reviewed was The Works of Walter Savage Landor, a poet who often wrote of nature and the outdoors. The epitath he penned for himself was:
I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and, next to nature, Art;
I warm'd both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.
I think we can assume that by 1849, "all outdoors" was already sharing space in vernacular usage with "the great outdoors," as attested by the latter's 1852 appearance in print cited upthread.

Keep in mind the limitations of Google n-grams, but the progressive shift from "all outdoors" and "all out-doors" to "the great outdoors" can be seen in this chart.
posted by beagle at 11:07 AM on May 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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