Wednesday, 20 April 2005

On Hammers And Nails

Twice recently I've been reminded of a saying that I thought went: To a child with a hammer everything looks like a nail.

But if you Google Child Hammer Everything Nail it doesn't show up until a ways down the list. The wording you tend to get is "If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" which, to me, doesn't have the same degree of implied gleeful destructiveness.

Also there's the odd "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail", which Robert X Cringely attributes to Mark Twain, but, when you think about it, that form doesn't make a lot of sense. Today, for instance, many men will pick up hammers and the world will not instantly turn all nail-like for any of them. Well, not too many, you'd hope.

This page, on a site named Centerfield, calls it the Law of the Instrument, which it attributes to Abraham Kaplan (although most sites say Abraham Maslow) and renders the phrase "Give a small boy a hammer and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding." They claim that the phrase is often given as "If you give a child a hammer, everything looks like a nail" which is probably the least coherent version so far and isn't backed up by my experience or Google's.

Centerfield doesn't mention Baruch, but thereby lies another interesting Google. It's variously called Baruch's Law, Observation or Organizational Principle and it's the "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" variant that this usually refers to. Maslow turns up again here and a further search on Maslow Hammer Nail[1] seems to suggest that it was the famed (well, I know him because he's connected to a famous, if unrelated, Herzberg) Motivational Theorist who coined the phrase. Which phrase, though, is a little open to question. There are three main variants:

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail."

"If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail."

"He that is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail."

No-one seems to know where, or when, he said any of these, though. His Wikipedia entry just gives it as an interesting quote and leaves it at that. The last variant seems to be edging towards a more Biblical syntax, though, and it, again, doesn't make any sense when you think about it, as a person who is good with a hammer may also be good with something else, a chisel perhaps, so I think we can discount that one.

So we're not quite sure who said it, or quite what they said but I like the phrase, anyway, and I'm sticking with it.

Update: hannah says in the comments that a friend uses a variant to do with PHP. This, in turn, made we wonder if it has become a snowclone. A search for "if your only tool is" "everything looks like a" -hammer gives only 3 snowclones:

  • if your only tool is a cruise missile, everything looks like a target
  • If your only tool is a penis, everything looks like a blow-job
  • If your only tool is MSWord, everything looks like a .doc


"if the only tool you have" "every problem" -hammer also has 3:

  • If the only tool you have is C, every problem looks like an operating system
  • If the only tool you have is a shotgun, every problem looks for the nearest exit.
  • If the only tool you have is an AR-15, then every problem looks like a TARGET.

[1] Not, of course, anything to do with Maxwell's Silver Hammer. Bang bang!

4 comments:

hannah said...

My mate aaron says "When all you have is PHP, everything looks like your thumb".

Inge said...

I still like your version best actually, it makes the most sense as well.

Paul said...

Thanks,

I tried the snowclone thing again and this time I got a few more, Some of them are incredibly geeky:

"But to him who has only routers and algorithms to sell, every problem looks like a job for "diffserv""

I have no idea what that means...

I know what this means:

"When you have a penis, every problem looks like a vagina"

But would rather I'd never read it. I did, however, snicker at this one:

"When all you've got is a nailgun, every problem looks like a messiah"

I know where this one's coming from:

"But, if you were a school headmaster in earlier life with a penchant for bossing others around then every problem looks like a school child"

There were a couple I liked:

"When you have sour cream every problem looks like a potato" and "When your only tool is a screwdriver, every problem looks like a can of paint."

But this one:

"To the person with a song, a drum and a dream, every problem looks like a dance."

Made me want to reach out and slap somebody...

Here are the others:


- To an urban planner, every problem looks like a zoning code
- If your only tool is a synchronous call, every problem looks like a parked connection.
- To an F-15 pilot, every problem looks like a MiG-21.
- To the person whose only tool is a spreadsheet, every problem looks like a grid.
- If your only tool is a parchment, every problem looks like a peace treaty.
- When the only tool you have is a strategic bomber, every problem looks like a city full of civilians
- When all you have is a legislature, every problem looks like a missing law.
- Every problem looks like a nail to a judge with a gavel.
- When you want to be cool and hack in the kernel, every problem looks like a kernel problem
- If all you have is Bayes' Formula, every problem looks like a statistic.
- When the only tools you have are a Bridgeport, a Myford, a Colchester and assorted other stuff, every problem looks like a steam engine
- if your only weapon is a bat, every problem looks like a ball
- When the only tool you have is an axe, every problem looks like a tree
- when the only tool you have is a shovel, every problem looks like a pile of dirt

hannah said...

this looks like a good selection for a random .sigline to me:)