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Q: Origin of Phrase "Deckchairs on the Titanic" ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Origin of Phrase "Deckchairs on the Titanic"
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: bmensch-ga
List Price: $9.50
Posted: 22 Jun 2003 20:36 PDT
Expires: 22 Jul 2003 20:36 PDT
Question ID: 220569
Hello.  I have a weblog called Deckchairs on the Titanic at  For the life of me, I cannot find the true
origination of the phrase.  I'd *truly* appreciate your
assistance so that I can answer my readers and my fevered brain.
Subject: Re: Origin of Phrase "Deckchairs on the Titanic"
Answered By: justaskscott-ga on 22 Jun 2003 22:10 PDT
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hello bmensch,

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

- justaskscott

Search strategy:

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".]

Request for Answer Clarification by bmensch-ga on 24 Jun 2003 05:15 PDT
Thank you!  This is very helpful.  It's interesting that there are no
earlier origins of the phrase -- is it possible that there is another
reference from the pre-70s?

Clarification of Answer by justaskscott-ga on 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.

Clarification of Answer by justaskscott-ga on 24 Jun 2003 22:59 PDT
This is the only other page of substance I have found.  Though it is
only anecdotal, it provides some support to the view that this
expression started in the early 1970s (or not much earlier than that,

"Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic", thread in
<alt.usage.english> (May 24 - Jun 9, 1998)
Google Groups

Clarification of Answer by justaskscott-ga on 27 Jun 2003 12:44 PDT
I got a chance to look at additional quotation books -- and found two
others that listed the Morton quotation only.  So it does seem that
the YDQ people have found an earlier use than the generally accepted
origin or popularization.
bmensch-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
Nice and very thorough work.  This was a tough question and I'm happy
to have a solid answer. Thank you very much!

There are no comments at this time.

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