Glass half full or glass half empty?

It’s a bit like asking which came first: the chicken or the egg? I suppose it depends on what you’re drinking.

I quite like a drop of red wine and appreciate that you only need half a glass at any one time to ensure the wine ‘breathes’ and you can savour the aroma as well as the taste. But I also like a pint of beer and am acutely aware of not just what’s in my glass, but what’s happened to the beer that isn’t there anymore.

If it’s gone down my throat then fine, I’ll be enjoying the taste and looking forward to my next mouthful. But if it’s gone down the front of your shirt because some oaf has just shoved me in the back and caused me to spill it all over you then I’ll be rather annoyed (and so will you). And yet despite these variations some people will try to assert that I’m an optimist or a pessimist for judging whether any particular glass of mine happens to be half full or half empty.

I was curious about the origin of the expression which seems like one of those phrases you half expect to originate from a biblical text or Shakespeare. However, a number of sources (including Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings (1996): GY Titelman) assert it’s earliest citation is by Ronald Reagan quoted in The New York Times in 1985. Surely not!

Digging a bit further, the expression appeared in a US Peace Corps advert in 1968:

Newspaper advertisement for the Peace Corps in 1968

But I still think it’s the sort of think my granny would have said and imagine that there are much older examples of the expression as a variation of things along the lines of “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

The oldest example of the sentiment rather than the actual words that I can find in the Oxford English Dictionary is attributed to John Preston:

Nothing is said to be empty, but when you look for a fullnesse in it;

There’s a simple beauty in the austerity of this expression; strip away the 17th century usage and what Preston is effectively saying is that nothing is empty unless you’re expecting it to be full.

Engraving of John Preston, born 1587, died 1628, aged 40

John Preston (1587–1628) was an Anglican minister and master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, at the time of James I.  The king had been impressed by his performance in a debate at Cambridge in 1615 (he argued that dogs were capable of logical reasoning!) and was offered several opportunities to advance his career at court, but he declined the invitations in order to focus on preaching and pastoral care. 

It has been suggested that his puritan instincts made the prospect of a close association with James I a less than attractive proposition, and yet at other times he had to defend himself against allegations of non-conformism from his clerical and academic rivals: if it was thought that he’d snubbed the king then certain people were likely to make his life difficult.

However, despite these challenges he succeeded John Donne as preacher to the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn in 1622 and he officiated there regularly until his death eight years later in addition to his other responsibilities.  Donne had progressed to become Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral so Preston had attained a high profile within the church and the state at that time.

OED dates this quote as 1628, but this is the year in which he died, aged only 40. After his death, his collected sermons were published in a number of volumes and the quote is to be found in New Covenant (1634). Preston had been ill for a few months before his death in July 1628 (probably from tuberculosis) so may not have delivered many sermons during the year: perhaps 1628 is the year in which the papers were received by the publisher rather than the actual date the sermon was delivered – but I’d need to consult a copy of the book to confirm this.

A hundred years after Preston there’s a nice quote from Alexander Pope (1688-1744) which sums up the empty/full paradox, although it’s still a bit off beam in not referring to glasses. As Shakespeare didn’t touch on the subject we might at least expect Pope to do so as he’s the second most frequently cited source (after Shakespeare) in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

In 1733, in Of Taste, or The Use of Riches, Pope wrote:

Resolve me, Reason, which of these is worse,
Want with a full or with an empty purse?

Portrait of Alexander Pope, born 1688, died 1744, aged 56

In an epic poem, Pope satirises the way in which greed and miserliness contribute more misery to the human condition than poverty itself. We’ve witnessed in very recent times how this compulsive greed can distort social values as hordes of shoppers have stripped shops bare of essentials in a spree of over-buying. Indeed, what was worse for these poor souls than having pockets full of cash and nothing to spend it on. Of course the poor folk who had little cash to begin with couldn’t buy anything either, but that was, perhaps, less significant because they were used to not being able to get the things they needed.

Whether your purse is half full or half empty doesn’t really matter if there’s nothing left to buy.