When wishing for things that are useless, you may hear someone respond to wishful thinking with if ifs and ands were pots and pans. The expression in modern times is more commonly known as ifs, ands or buts because language, as we know, is always evolving. However, over the generations, the idiom has oftentimes been reduced to merely ifs and ands.
In 1929, James Milton Carson published a 16-page booklet entitled, “The Ifs and Ands of Race Track Gambling In Florida.” While Idiomation hasn’t had occasion to read the publication, the title says it all, don’t you think?
Just a touch over a century before that, the expression is found in the “Melodist, and Mirthful Olio: An Elegant Collection of the Most Popular Songs, Recitations, Glees, Duets, Etc.” The Olio was the work of actor John Pritt Harley (February 1790 – 27 August 1858), edited by Charles Dixon, and printed and published in 1828 by H. Arliss of Cutter Lane in Cheapside. John Pritt Harley was known as an actor of great versatility as well as the manager and principal actor at the St. James’s Theatre in London where the comic burletta, “The Strange Gentleman” — written by Charles Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) — was first performed. The song in the Olio is entitled, “A Song Of Ifs And Ands” and begins with this verse:
If ifs and ands were pots and pans,
‘Twould cure the tinker’s cares;
If ladies did not carry fans,m
They’d give themselves no airs.
In the book “Letters from Hudson Bay” published by the Hudson’s Bay Record Society, an R. Staunton is quoted in 1723 as having written:
… Mr. Myat giving him but a very indifferent character, and not to have stocked one new gun this year; which made me call him to know what he can undertake in one year besides overhauling the English and mending the Indians’ guns that hunts for the factory. He replied with a great many ifs and ands.
English theologian and philosopher Ralph Cudworth (1617 – 26 June 1688) published his principal philosophical work, “The True Intellectual System of the Universe” in 1678. He was considered one of the most important of the Cambridge Platonists, a group of philosophers from the University of Cambridge who promoted rationalistic theology and ethics. The group also included such historical figures as Henry More (1614–1687), Benjamin Whichcote (1609–1683), Peter Sterry (1613–1672), John Smith (1618–1652), Nathaniel Culverwell (1619–1651), and John Worthington (1618–1671). In his book, he wrote:
Thus, therefore, the idea of God, or an absolutely perfect being, including in it not an impossible, nor a contingent, but a necessary schesis, or relation to existence, it follows from thence absolutely, and without any ifs and ands, that he doth exist. For as of things contradictions, having therefore in the idea of them an impossible schesis to existence, we can confidently conclude, that they never where, nor will be.
In the play “Spanish Tragedie” Act II Scene, written by Thomas Kyd (6 November 1558 – 15 August 1594) and published in 1587, there is a brief exchange between Pedringano, servant of Bel-imperia and Lorenzo, Don Ciprian’s son (Don Ciprian being the Duke of Castile) as well as Bel-imperia’s brother. The play is one of many revenges, including Balthazar’s affirmation that he intends to kill Horatio for stealing Bel-Imperia’s love from him after hearing that Bel-Imperia has supposedly has feelings for Horatio, and Lorenzo spurs his friend on. The quick exchange between the servant and the brother is as follows:
Oh stay, my lord!
Yet speak the truth, and I will guerdon thee
And shield thee from what-euer can ensue,
And will conceale what-euer proceeds from thee;
But, if thou dally once againe, thou diest!
If madame Bel-imperia be in loue—
What, villaine! ifs and ands?
Oh stay, my lord! she loues Horatio!
And the expression is found in the account “Beheading of Lord Hastings” in the book “The History of Kyng Richard the Third” by Sir Thomas More, published in 1577. The account is alleged to have been written by Sir Thomas More in 1513, and describes an event that took place in 1432.
What quod the protectour thou servest me, I wene, wi ifes and with andes, I tel the thei haue so done, and that I will make good on they body traituor.
The story also implies that Richard III (2 October 1452 – 22 August 1485) was familiar with the nursery rhyme:
If wishes were horses then beggars would ride,
If turnips were swords I’d have one by my side.
If ‘ifs’ and ‘ands’ were pots and pans
There would be no need for tinkers’ hands!
This would, indeed, seem to be the case since he used the shortened version in 1432. Since the first recorded nursery rhyme dates back to the 13th century, and many nursery rhymes were recorded in English plays by the 16th century, it is reasonable to believe that the claim that Richard III was familiar with this specific nursery rhyme.
That being said, the most reasonable date for this idiom is somewhere between 1425 and 1450, when adults raising Richard III would have had occasion to recite the nursery rhyme to him as a child.