Free Lunch

Stranger in a strange bar.

Dear Word Detective: The following question recently appeared on STUMPERS-L (an Internet mailing list in which research librarians assist each other with tough ones):

I am interested in tracing the origin of the expression “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” No, it didn’t originate with Milton Friedman or Robert Heinlein, but rather appears to have been the punch line to an economists’ joke current as early as the 1930s. Does anyone know of any evidence of usage from the 1930s or 1940s or earlier?

Can you help? — Paul Wiener.

I don’t know about this one. You seem to be asking me to compete with professional researchers armed with entire buildings full of books and computerized databases. I, in contrast, have to dislodge an obese orange cat to open a simple dictionary around here.

In any case, judging from the reference to Milton Friedman and Robert Heinlein, you’re aware that Heinlein used the phrase in one of his science fiction novels in 1966. Economist Friedman also popularized the expression, but did not claim to have invented it. And, according to Robert Caro, quoted in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia used the phrase (in Latin, no less) in 1934.

I don’t think anyone is likely to come up with a definitive “first use” of this phrase. The institution of a “free lunch” itself dates back to the mid-19th century, when it was common for taverns to offer their paying customers free food (usually a cold buffet) along with their drinks. Since eating the “free” food required first buying a drink, however, it was debatable whether the “lunch” was really “free” in any real sense. I’d be surprised if the common-sense aphorism “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” didn’t arise within just a few years of the establishment of the “free lunch” practice in 19th century taverns.

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