March 01, 2013

The 1941 New Yorker cartoon that created the expression “Back to the old drawing board!”


Drawing boards have been used by engineers and architects for more than two centuries.

But the saying “back to the old drawing board” is more recent and can actually be traced to a specific source and date.

It was coined by the American artist Peter Arno in a cartoon first published in the March 1, 1941 issue of New Yorker magazine.

Arno created hundreds of classic cover and interior cartoons for the New Yorker from 1925 until his death in 1968. Many were compiled in a series of popular books.

The caption of one of those cartoons, first published in 1932, popularized the saying “This is a hell of a way to run a railroad!” 

Arno’s phrase-making 1941 cartoon shows a crashed military plane, with the pilot coming down by parachute in the background.

Uniformed military personnel are running toward the plane.

But a nerdy-looking guy in a suit, carrying a roll of papers under his arm, is walking away, saying (in the caption): “Well, back to the old drawing board.”

The nerd is presumably one of the engineers who designed the plane. He seems almost cheerful that he has more design work to do.

The rolled up papers he’s carrying are the engineering drawings for the plane, soon to be put back on his drawing board for modifications.

During World War II, Arno’s caption was picked up and transformed into an idiomatic expression.

The phrase “back to the old drawing board” (or just “back to the drawing board”) became a humorous way of saying that something didn’t work or isn’t working as planned, so a different option or plan is needed.

The expression is still in common use today, though few people know that it comes from a Peter Arno cartoon published on today’s date in 1941.

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Further reading: books featuring NEW YORKER cartoons...

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