A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (136)?…

No ifs or buts

We use this phrase to make a very pointed statement, allowing no room for argument or doubt. For example, we may say we are leaving the European Union, no ifs or buts. Our course of action is very clear and there is no opportunity for misunderstanding our intentions or for arguing against it. I am rarely so dogmatic, except when I make this statement, and seldom use the phrase. There is another variant of the phrase which is no ifs, ands or buts. It is this latter variant which reveals the twists and turns this phrase went through down the centuries.

At first glance and looks a little out of place. And, after all, is one of the commonest words in the English language and is used as a conjunction to join two or more words, phrases or clauses together. If is a conjunction which introduces a conditional clause – in other words it introduces the concept that something may happen in the event that the condition which is framed by the word if occurs or may occur. But in this phrase takes the form of a noun and means an argument against or an objection. So while we can easily see that the negation of if, the conditional, and but, the noun, means that there can be no option other than that which the speaker is laying out, and, as a conjunction, seems to add no sense and, if anything, is redundant.

The word and, though, from at least the 13th century, had another use – that of a conditional. It appeared in phrases like “and it please your grace” which meant “if it please your grace”. The use of and in our phrase now begins to make some sense. By the 16th century a form of our phrase was in use, the first recorded instance being in Thomas More’s unfinished work, The History of Kyng Richard the Third, which he wrote in 1513. In the relevant passage the King flew into a rage and exclaimed “thou servest me, I wene, with ifs and with andes”. Although the spelling convention of the time might suggest he was talking about a mountain range in South America, and is used in its conditional sense.

The philosopher, Ralph Cudworth, in his The True Intellectual System of the Universe, published in 1678, provided us with another example of the use of and as a conditional in a sentence where it appeared immediately after and in its more familiar guise as a conjunction; “Absolutely and without any Ifs and Ands”. Interestingly, though, around the same time but came into the mix, either to further reinforce the meaning of the phrase or because folk memory of the conditional use of and was becoming a little hazy. The Puritan theologian, Thomas Goodwin, wrote in around 1680, “The Grants of Grace run without Ifs, and Ands, and Buts”.  The phrase has endured into modern times, often with the conditional and removed and sometimes with it remaining there proudly to remind us of its earlier usage.

In researching this post, I came across an interesting usage of the phrase in The Stepmother by the English novelist, George Payne Rainsford Payne, published in 1845. He wrote “Ay! If ifs and ands were pots and pans, there would be no work for tinkers”. This appears to have been a variant of an earlier proverb which appeared in 1828 in a poem entitled A chapter of Ifs; “If Ifs and Ands were pots and pans/ ‘twould cure the tinker’s cares”. This in turn may owe its origins from a translation of a German poem published in 1821, “are you there, my old fox, with your ifs and ans?/ But I need not remind you, they’re not pots and pans/ else tinkers would starve”. I won’t be so unequivocal in making this claim but it strengthens the argument that but was a later addition to the phrase, there to clarify the archaic usage of and.


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