The Corner

“Good Enough For Government Work”

I’ve been trying to find the history of this phrase. If you poke around, you’ll find a million instances of Al Gore saying it used to mean the very best standard. But he says this was the case at the turn of the century. In other instances, I find people saying it came from WWII. Then there’s the related phrase “close enough for government work” which hardly sounds like it could have ever been a standard of excellence. Anyone know the answer here?

Update: Hey folks thanks for all of the feedback. But I really don’t need any more email from people that begins “I don’t know the answer but I do know that when I was a [carpenter, scientist, engineer, grad student, nurse, cop, Marine etc] it meant ‘the bare minimum.’” Some of the emails are hilarious. I particularly liked the one from the army vet who hated to hear the artillery guy say “close enough for government work.”

I already knew that the phrase has long meant “just good enough to pass .” What I can’t find is any definitive proof of Al Gore’s contention that it ever meant “the very best.” It’s not that I don’t think Gore would make something like that up. I’m just skeptical that I’ve never heard him called on it, if it’s not true. But, after spending way too much time on this, I’m beginning to think this is similar to one of those phrases, like “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child” that liberals say people used to say but never said.

Update II: A reader, representative of many, sends these links:

Jonah,

Don’t you know that the answer to any of life’s questions can be found with google and the half word “wiki”? http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/good_enough_for_government_work. Even better, here is a General on the subject. http://integrator.hanscom.af.mil/2006/August/08242006/08242006-01.htm Also, here’s a government employee using the phrase for a pep talk http://dab.nfc.usda.gov/news/nh-1998/nh-0998/dircorn-0998.html. He ties the phrase to munitions deliveries, and the excellent quality that was needed. There’s also an urban dictionary entry, but come on, that’s the poor man’s wikipedia. Hope this helps.

Me: Okay, the wiktionary definition and the other links say it came from WWII and meant “the highest standard.” A) I don’t believe that (Wik doesn’t mean “accurate”) and can’t find any newspapers from the time that corroborate it. B) Al Gore says it came from before the “turn of the century.” So even if those sources were right, they’d still be saying Gore is wrong.

Update III: A reader comes somewhat to Gore’s defense:

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, has this in Chapter 35 describing the

national cemetary in Vicksburg:

“…perfect in its charm. Everything about this cemetery suggests the

hand of the national Government. The Government’s work is always

conspicuous for excellence, solidity, thoroughness, neatness. The

Government does its work well in the first place, and then takes care of

it.”

Nothing in the context suggests that he’s being sarcastic. He praises

Federal projects (as opposed to state ones, which he is less

complimentary about) elsewhere in the book.

I know he’s not using the phrase, but it seems the sentiment did exist

before 1900.

Update IV: From a reader:

Subject: Mark Twain! Not sarcastic? 

Has your correspondent ever read Mark Twain?

Seriously, there is not a soul on earth who can tell when Twain is or is not being sarcastic. He was the most sarcastic, most ironic, and most talented satirist who ever sailed any river, including the Mississippi. The only way to be sure he is not fooling you is to take everything he says as humor.

Remember, this is the same man who said America had no native criminal class except Congress. After all, “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.”

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