One of my catchphrases is “Life is good.” When I used it around my wife’s parents and their friends (now dead) I would often get the reply, “If you don’t weaken.” They were born in the mid-1930s, and several were Korean war vets. Possibly they picked it up from a Faron Young song, “Life is Great (If You Don’t Weaken)”. That’s from 1955.
But maybe not, since some of them were jazz people. And the song lyrics say:
*Life is great if you don’t weaken — but who wants to be strong? *
-which implies the writer is playing with a common expression.
Carl Sandburg wrote a biography of socialist Oscar Ameringer titled, If You Don’t Weaken. (1940)
More recently the phrase has been used as a song title by Tragically Hip. Supposedly they lifted it from a graphic novel.
Google ngrams indicates a spike in usage around 1919. But the phrase clearly predates that year. Here’s a citation from a 1912 book where it’s a line in a poem. One might suspect this poem as being the source, but I’m not sure about that.
Correction: the book I cited is a collection of Masonic periodicals. Google lists the book’s date as 1912, probably because that’s the date of the first periodical reprinted in it. But the periodical containing the poem I mentioned is dated Feb. 1918. So I don’t see a lot of evidence for uses earlier than 1918. A tedious moralistic poem published in a Masonic periodical doesn’t seem very plausible to me as a source for a widely used phrase, but it’s possible.
Part of my interest in phrase is that it addresses dealing with hard times in unsentimental style. It seems to have had it’s biggest ngram peaks just after WWI and WWII. It belongs to the same family as Keep Calm and Carry On, but with a bit of gallows humor.
The nautical poem you linked to (thanks!) didn’t feel like it was introducing the idea. It seemed like it expected the reader to be familiar with the phrase. It focused more on the litany of humorous problems than the concept of “if you don’t weaken.”. But maybe not.
I don’t know. At first I thought that too, but the repeated use of the phrase, even making it the title of the poem, is making me think it might be the origin. I wonder if the poem might have been broadcast on the radio, which could explain it’s sudden popularity around 1918.