The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (5th Ed. 1999), page 533, lists a
quotation from the Washington Post, 16 May 1976, by Rogers Morton,
American public relations officer: "I'm not going to rearrange the
furniture on the deck of the Titanic." The context, according to the
dictionary, was that Morton had lost five of the last six primaries as
President Ford's campaign manager.
The editor of the forthcoming Yale Dictionary of Quotations (YDQ),
Fred Shapiro, noted that the YDQ files listed Morton as the originator
of the expression. However, a member of the YDQ staff determined that
there was an earlier occurrence of the phrase:
'"Administrators [at Lincoln Center] are running around straightening
out deck chairs while the Titanic goes down." N.Y. Times, 15 May
1972, p. 34'
"RE: Deck chairs on the Titanic - thanks", by Fred Shapiro (08/27/02)
Archive of the Law-Lib Electronic Discussion List
I hope that this puts you and your readers at ease -- or at least
demonstrates to them that people have been rearranging deckchairs on
the Titanic, or advising the futility of doing so, for more than 30
Searched in Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
Searched on Google for:
"furniture on the deck of the titanic"
[Note: The posting by Fred Shapiro is also highly ranked in a Google
search for "deck chairs on the titanic".]
Clarification of Answer by
24 Jun 2003 07:37 PDT
Well, I assume that since the Yale and Oxford quotation editors both
thought that the origin came in 1976, and that the Yale editor only
recently pushed it back to 1972, the concept of arranging chairs or
furniture on the deck of the Titanic originates in the 1970s.
My initial thought had been: Surely this phrase has been around longer
than that! But since I was born not much before 1972, maybe it just
seems that way. The subconscious belief is probably something like:
"It's been around as long as I can remember (or it's so clever and
widely used), therefore it must have always been around." I think
that's the trick of a memorable phrase; for instance, some people may
think that "axis of evil" was used in World War II (and you never
know, maybe it was!).
Since it is possible that the phrase pre-dates the 70s, I will give it
another look on the Internet. In addition, at some point I might be
at the large library in my area, and browse through their quotation
books to see if an earlier quotation shows up.