preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

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preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat May 26, 2007 8:59 pm

Last week I used the expression PLAYING TO THE CHOIR in the posting reception wording and hyphens. And this week Dale Hileman used PREACHING TO THE CHOIR in the posting Nana Tootsie. I wondered to myself at the time how the two were related and which came first. Here’s what I came up with:

The original construction which first appeared in England in the mid-19th century and which I think is the most direct statement of the three sibling phrases, is PREACH TO THE CONVERTED. It is surprising, though, how few word and phrase origin books mention this fairly common expression. Even more surprising, to me at least, is that I couldn’t find the PREACH and PLAY TO versions listed or discussed in any sources, and that the earliest examples I could find of these two were from 1970 and 1992 respectively!

PREACH TO THE CONVERTED (1857): To explain one’s ideas or beliefs (or to advocate something) to people who already agree with you and share one's convictions about their merits or importance; to try to convince someone who is already convinced; also, to ‘kick at an open door.’ <“Don’t lecture me that smoking is bad, I gave it up years ago. You’re preaching to the converted.”>
<1857 “It is an old saying that to PREACH TO THE CONVERTED is a useless office, and I may add that to preach to the unconvertible is a thankless office.”—‘Times,’ 6 November, page 7/4

<1867 “Dr. M'Cosh is PREACHING NOT TO A PERSON ALREADY CONVERTED, but to an actual missionary of the same doctrine.”—‘An Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy’ by John Stuart Mill’ (edition 3), xiv. page 319>

<1897 “By this time I hope I am PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED”—‘Journal of the Royal Statistical Society,’ Vol. 60, No. 1, March, page >

<1916 “One may be said to be PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED and kicking at open doors in praising . . . the four great novelists of the eighteenth century.”—‘The Peace of the Augustans’ by G. Saintsbury , iii. page 144>

<1926 “‘I don’t think Smith and his crowd will change any votes. They are PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED. On the other hand the very noise they make may drive some votes to Roosevelt, . . .”—‘Nevada State Journal’ (Reno), 22 June, page 2>

<1949 “Last week, . . . cartoonist Low quit the lively Standard to join Labor's dull and pedantic Daily Herald.. As one Fleet Streeter said, ‘Low's PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED on the Herald, where on the Standard he got a mixed bag.”—‘Time Magazine,’ 26 December>

<1973 “The same members are now rushing forward in pursuit of the Grail of European unity. ‘Europe has been treated like a nonentity, . . . Europe has been humiliated by the superpowers . . .’ Willy Brandt, PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED, promised the European Parliament in Strasbourg: ‘We can and will create Europe.’—‘Time Magazine,’ 3 December>

<1996 “After the meeting I could not help thinking how easy it was to PREACH TO THE CONVERTED.”—‘Market Trader & Shopper,’ 11 October, page 6/3>

<2006 (clever article title)“PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED: What does Christmas mean to our most fervent non-believer? John Preston talks to Richard Dawkins”—‘Telegraph,’ 17 December> [[Dawkins has been dubbed “Britain’s most famous atheist” and his most recent book is The God Delusion]]
PREACH TO THE CHOIR: Later synonym (U.S. variation) of ‘preach to the converted.’ Speaking to and trying to convince a sympathetic audience or group that is already convinced, as a preacher to his choir, who already believe.
<1970 “Foster spoke yesterday before a packed Air Force Association seminar... Admitting that this was like ‘PREACHING TO THE CHOIR,’ he nevertheless went on to detail a rather gloomy view of declining U.S. defense capabilities.”—‘Washington Post,’ 24 September, page A27/2>

<1973 “‘He said he felt like the minister who was PREACHING TO THE CHOIR.’ That is, to the people who always come to church, but not the ones who need it most."—‘Lima News’ (Ohio), 13 January, page 4>

<1973 “This is my nation,. . . I love her. If I see her ill, I’ll hold her hand. I realize full well I’m PREACHING TO THE CHOIR tonight, but sometimes the choir doesn’t sing loud enough.”—‘Oakland Tribune’ (California), 27 April, page 37>

<1979 “In some ways she [[First Lady Rosalynn Carter in her testimony before a congressional committee]] was PREACHING TO THE CHOIR. Kennedy [[Senator Edward]] is chairman of he Senate Human Resources subcommittee on health and has had a long interest in mental health. His older sister, Rosemary, is mentally retarded.”— Pennsylvania | Doylestown | ‘Daily Intelligencer’ (Doylestown, Pennsylvania), 7 February, page 3>

<1984 “While the book may be profitably read by someone wishing a brief on US immigration issues of recent vintage, it is not likely to change anyone’s mind about policy directions. It is PREACHING TO THE CHOIR.”—“‘Population and Development Review,’ Vol. 10, No. 1, March, page 153>

<1987 The people behind some ‘Say No to Drugs’ programs admit they often draw a clean-cut crowd and may be PREACHING TO THE CHOIR.”—‘Syracuse Herald American’ (New York), 28 June, page E2/1>

<1987 “But the days of such stark contrasts are probably fleeting. Dukakis last week declined a challenge from Kemp. With too many debates on their plates, the candidates are likely to stick to their own kind, and the seductive safety of PREACHING TO THE CHOIR.”—‘Time Magazine,’ 7 September>

<1994 “. . . cigarette companies claim their marketing efforts today are aimed at keeping the customers they have rather than winning new ones. ‘It's like PREACHING TO THE CHOIR, . . . Tobacco companies know who their customers are and where they live. They are focusing on those people who already smoke.”—‘Time Magazine,’ 8 April>

<1999 “To craft a paper on ‘the value of sociology’ may seem, at first blush, a bit like PREACHING TO THE CHOIR. Not only will most of the readers be sociologists, but I presume that most sociologists find some value in what they do as sociologists.”—‘Sociological Perspectives,’ Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring, page 1>

<2007 “By the time Giuliani was introduced, his audience had heard some six hours of encouragement on topics ranging from spiritual health to real estate. . . . ‘Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!’ they chanted. ‘You have to be an optimist,’ he said, PREACHING TO THE CHOIR. Reagan was. ‘People used to say he saw the country through rose-colored glasses. If you don't see it that way, you can't make it that way.’
—‘Time Magazine,’ 22 March>
It seems to me, and I have no proof of this, that the variation PLAYING TO THE CHOIR may have arisen, as many expressions do, from their association, and sometimes confusion, with some other familiar expression. Two candidates which I think could have contributed to such a meld are: 1) ‘Play to the gallery,’ which derives from English theater and means showing off (overacting/overplaying to get a rise out of the less refined and discriminating members of a group; originally playing to the cheap seats – the gallery) has been around since the 17th century. 2) ‘Play to the grandstand,’ which also means showing off, and which was first recorded in baseball in 1888.

<1992 “This concern is echoed by archeologist . . . skeptical of pre-Clovis claims. Meltzer says: ‘You can’t just PLAY TO THE CHOIR; you’ve got to play to the skeptics.’”—‘Science,’ New Series, Vol. 257, No. 5070, July, page 622>

<1994 “Both the voters and the media are smart enough to understand when a candidate is PLAYING TO THE CHOIR.”—‘Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service,’ 9 February>

<1995 “The religion of restaurants is so faithfully practiced and consistently skewered in Northern California that ‘Dining’ [[the play]], 16 years after it was written, comes awfully close to PLAYING TO THE CHOIR here. ‘San Francisco Chronicle,’ 10 March, page C3>

<1998 “Turner doesn’t shy away from responding forcefully to his critics. In a recent paper he accused one of them of ‘PLAYING TO THE CHOIR’ and called Dongoske ‘self-serving.”—‘New Yorker,’ 30 November, page 85>

<1999 “The Dave Matthews Band is PLAYING TO THE CHOIR on this two-CD live album of a September 1999 concert . . . avid fans will applaud the long-form improvisation and unusual sax-and-violin textures this sextet specializes in, . . . doubters will find nothing to convince them they're missing anything special.”—‘Boston Herald,’ 24 December>

<2002 “The playwright [[Arthur Miller]] cannot be content to state a theme once within a scene: he must hammer it home, until it loses power and metaphorical thrust. Exhorting a Broadway audience [[in a production of The Crucible]] to non-judgmentalism and rationality is PLAYING TO THE CHOIR.”—‘Financial Times,’ 8 March>

<2003 “. . . the mere viewing of historic airplanes does not make people giddy with desire to fly. ‘Air museums PLAY TO THE CHOIR,’ Weeks said.”—‘Palm Beach Post,’ 14 December>

<2004 “The polls reflected the mood of the electorate and so, too, did the candidates’ rhetoric. That it also reflect the deeply held beliefs of Bush and Gore added to its appeal. Gore and Bush were not merely PLAYING TO THE CHOIR; they were members of the choir and were singing their own songs.”—‘The Ethos of Rhetoric’ by Michael J. Hyde, page 126>

<2004 “Entrants were asked [[by]] to make a 30-second anti-Bush TV commercial. Although impressive in many ways, overall the entries were ultimately somewhat disappointing . . . many made basic errors of PLAYING TO THE CHOIR rather than to the unconverted . . .”—‘,’ 5 January>

<2004 “P-I [[Seattle Post-Intellingencer]] columnist Joel Connelly believes Dubya's PLAYING TO THE CHOIR with his push for a constitutional marriage amendment (and he's probably right).”— ‘Seattle Post Intellingencer,’ 14 July>

<2004 “Brookwood calls the latest UltraSparc IV+ an example of Sun ‘PLAYING TO THE CHOIR’ of its established customers. ‘Sun continues to hold on to its serious customers in the Sparc space, but it's having trouble attracting new ones,’ he says.”—‘,’ 4 October>

<2004 “The Vote for Change tour, . . . rolled through East Lansing, Detroit, Auburn Hills and Grand Rapids on Sunday evening . . . Is a touring band of musicians rocking against the Bush administration PLAYING TO THE CHOIR? Of course they are.”—‘The State News’ (Michigan State University), 5 October>

<2005 “Without overtly PLAYING TO THE CHOIR, Jones was deadly serious: ‘We need fast, aggressive growth. We don’t need baby, incremental growth.’—‘, 3 November>

Googlewise (using their ‘web’ search), by far the most common of the above forms is PREACH or PREACHING TO THE CHOIR, with ~ 570,000 hits. Next comes PREACH or PREACHING TO THE CONVERTED with ~ 240,000 hits. And last, and I’m sad to say, least (&gt), comes my down-in-the-mud-and-relative-noise version PLAY or PLAYING TO THE CHOIR with less than 6000 hits. Well, at least I’m not the only jughead to have used the PLAYING rendering, with some otherwise fairly respectable folks (witness the above quotes) having also fallen victim to the apparent switch!

(Oxford English Dictionary, American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, and archived sources)

Ken G – May 26, 2007

preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

Post by spiritus » Sat Jun 09, 2007 7:40 am

My grandfather was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in the year 1870, and died in 1967. He was a loyal Republican, with a life-long interest in politics.

I can recall his having used a variation and combined form of both expressions. PREACHING TO THE CONGREGATION, WHILE SINGING WITH THE CHOIR.

My grandfather used it as a characterizing summation of those elected officials whom while campaigning for votes, insisted they would make reforms, resolutely fufill their campaign promises, and swore allegiance to their party's platform. After winning office, these were the politicians that quickly begin singing another song.

Think Bush and spending;
Bush and Dubai; Edwards, Hillary and Iraq.
Contemporary usage of the expression in this political sense, is quite common throughout the South and America's Bible Belt.
Signature: Che Baraka

preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Sat Jun 09, 2007 7:11 pm

I'm trying to think of the other set of elected politicians.

preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

Post by spiritus » Sun Jun 10, 2007 3:06 am

I try not to think of them, particularly during elections. When my mind wanders and I do, I'm reminded that they are the congregation and choir --- and then in a hypnotic daze, I stumble into the nearest voting booth and vote.

P.S. How have you been Ed? It's good to 'hear' from you.
Signature: Che Baraka

preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

Post by Edwin Ashworth » Sun Jun 17, 2007 10:46 pm

Mustn't complain, thanks, Che. (Or my wife will belt me.)
I still tend to bridle when I see some of the policies those who make decisions on my behalf come up with - hopefully more preaching will convert my world-view to seeing lasting realities in sharper relief than immediate muck-heaps.

preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Jun 17, 2007 11:12 pm

That's the usual direction the bridle path takes, even with those who are single.
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preach to the converted / preach to the choir / play to the

Post by spiritus » Mon Jun 18, 2007 12:06 am

Signature: Che Baraka

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