Magazine

How people started saying 'It ain't over till it's over'

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe man behind 'It ain't over till it's over'

Many of the celebrated "Yogi-isms" of Yogi Berra - who has died aged 90 - were repeatedly cited for their ridiculousness. But one has come in very useful, writes Gareth Rubin.

"It ain't over till it's over." Well, you can't argue with that.

American baseball legend Yogi Berra first uttered the phrase about baseball's 1973 National League pennant race. His team was a long way behind when he said it and they did eventually rally to win the division title. It's not the only offbeat quote from the sportsman - there's also the existential "It's like deja-vu all over again" or the wry "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours" - but there is something about the never-say-die, no-matter-the-odds-we-can-do-this spirit of "It ain't over..." that finds a place to inspire, time and time again.

It tells people to wait, don't make a judgement yet, because the struggle still might be turned around.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption It ain't over until England get to the penalty shoot-out

Linguistically, it's a tautology - some use the form tautophrase - that tells you nothing about the world when taken literally. Telling people X is X provides no real information. What it does is remind you that there is still hope. That if you wipe the sweat from your brow, spit on the ground, and come out fighting, there is still a chance of triumph. It's a cousin to the Dunkirk Spirit and nodding acquaintance of the blander "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again" but with more fire in its belly.

In its various spellings, you can find Berra's phrase well over half a million times on Google. Top of the rankings is a Lenny Kravitz song which uses the quote as its title, insisting that a love affair still has a spark in it.

But the phrase pops up in a bewildering array of places - as the title of a scientific paper on Darwinian theory, and uttered by Sylvester Stallone in his 2006 boxing-comeback flick Rocky Balboa. "What's that from, the eighties?" demands his arrogant opponent. "That's probably the seventies," mumbles the boxer who won't give up.

The White House employed the phrase in a written response to a petition asking the government to award Berra a medal, and in June New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio, used it in reference to a fight on his hands over rent controls. It has been a title to numerous TV episodes, including the groundbreakingly gritty American cop show Hill Street Blues, and there seems to be a cottage industry in using it about the Eurozone crisis.

But most of all, it's sportsmen and women who cling to it, and find within those words a reason to keep running or punching even when the odds are stacked against them because without an underdog story, without a fightback there would never be a reason to cheer.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.