English English language Etymology Expression Language Slang Usage

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Q: Do you have information on the origin of the phrase “don’t  sweat the small stuff”? I didn’t find a convincing answer with Google search and ChatGPT. Any light you might be able to shed on the subject would be appreciated!

A: As far as we can tell, the slang expression “don’t sweat the small stuff” first appeared in the US in the 1950s.

The earliest example we’ve seen is from the student newspaper at Mercer University in Macon, GA: “Have a good time over the summer and don’t sweat the small stuff” (The Mercer Cluster, May 25, 1956).

The Oxford English Dictionary says “to sweat the small stuff” means “to worry about trivial, insignificant matters (usually in negative contexts); originally and chiefly imperative, in: don’t sweat the small stuff.”

The earliest OED citation is from an Oct. 23, 1979, article in The New York Times that cites Dr. Kenneth Greenspan, a specialist in stress-related disorders at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.

In opening a two‐day seminar at the college, the article says, “He quoted a friend’s prescription for dealing with stress. ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff,’ he said. ‘And try to remember it’s all small stuff.’ ”

In its entry for “to sweat the small stuff,” the OED refers readers to the earlier expression “don’t sweat it,” which the dictionary describes as US slang for “don’t worry.”

The earliest example of “don’t sweat it” that we’ve found is from a 1954 issue of Desmos, the journal of Delta Sigma Delta, an international dental fraternity: “Per usual, the seniors and juniors tell the sophomores, ‘don’t sweat it.’ ”

The earliest Oxford citation is from a 1963 issue of the journal American Speech: “Don’t sweat it means ‘don’t worry about it,’ ’’

We discuss “don’t sweat it” in a 2016 post that includes an earlier, similar usage in the Dec. 12, 1914, issue of Happy Days, a New York weekly newspaper:

“ ‘What’s the meeting for, anyway?’ said Paul Braddon. ‘Keep your shirt on, and don’t sweat it off,’ said Deacon Small.”

[Note:This post was updated on Feb. 14, 2024.]

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