Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Well-Traveled Metaphor: "Goldilocks" Visits Many Houses

We all know the old fairy tale: Goldilocks enters the house of the Three Bears and samples their porridge, their chairs, and their beds. Each time she finds one item that's "just right." In recent years, the familiar story has been making the rounds, with the word "Goldilocks" showing up in some unexpected contexts, from astronomy to economy.

As I observe in my latest column for the Wall Street Journal, we've been hearing a lot about Goldilocks lately thanks to some news about "Goldilocks planets" beyond our solar system. Those are planets that, like Earth, are in the "habitable zone" (sometimes called the "Goldilocks zone") around their suns, an area that is not too hot and not too cold to support life. ("Goldilocks planets" need to be not too big and not too small, too.) Using data from NASA's Kepler telescope, a group of astronomers led by UC Berkeley graduate student Erik Petigura published a study demonstrating that there may be tens of billions of Goldilocks planets in our galaxy.

Berkeley astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy, who supervised the study, is a renowned planet hunter. Marcy was a discoverer of the first exoplanet to be popularly dubbed "Goldilocks" in 1996, as it appeared, according to the measurements of the time, to be capbale of sustaining life. Later, however, it was found to be too hot for life, not "just right" after all.

But using the Goldilocks metaphor has much older roots in astronomy. For his Double-Tongued Dictionary site (now part of A Way With Words), Grant Barrett turned up a 1935 article in the Los Angeles Times that put the astronomers looking for extraterrestrial life in the role of Goldilocks:

Among these countless myriads of stars there may be thousands, tens of thousands, millions or more than a billion "inhabited" planets; astral bodies reflecting light and boasting life as we know it. Again, there may be but one such star in the universe, the earth. To find out, science today has turned Goldilocks. You remember Goldilocks, the original blonde terror who annoyed the Three Bears. ... With identical curiosity and startlingly similar conclusions, the astronomer now is sampling the stars for conditions to support life.
—Kenneth Crist, "Has the Earth a Corner on Life?" (Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1935)

Somewhere along the line, though, the term "Goldilocks" moved from describing the astronomers looking for the "just right" planets to the planets themselves, or the zones in which they are found. But in the Goldilocks tale, it's Baby Bear who has the "just right" porridge/chair/bed. As Charles C. Doyle asked on the American Dialect Society mailing list, shouldn't it be called the Baby Bear Zone instead of the Goldilocks Zone? "I detect anti-ursinism in the astronomical community," Doyle wryly noted.

Baby Bear doesn't get the credit because "Goldilocks," by the process of synecdoche, now stands for the entire story, so that any phenomenon that only exists in a moderate zone between two extremes can be said to observe the "Goldilocks principle." In economics, the earliest example I found of "Goldilocks" used in this attributive fashion came in a Dec. 20, 1966 Wall Street Journal article, "Return of the Saver." An unnamed Johnson Administration official is quoted as saying, "We're getting very close to a 'Goldilocks' economy right now — not too hot, not too cold, but just right."

A few weeks later, a member of Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers went on the record with the "Goldilocks economy" line:

What we have here is a "Goldilocks economy," said CEA member James S. Duesenberry the other day. "It's not too hot, not too cold, but just right."
But, say a passel of respected economists and businessmen, Goldilocks didn't know The Bear was around the corner, and just about ready to re-enter the house.
—Hobart Rowen, "The Forecast: Slower-Paced Economy" (Washington Post, Jan. 8, 1967)

All of this "Goldilocks" talk from Johnson's economic advisers was ridiculed by the administration's critics. A February 1969 Newsweek article on the new Nixon Administration said that "Mr. Nixon had often scoffed at the 'fine tuning' theories of such New Economists as Gardner Ackley and Arthur Okun, both of whom served as chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Johnson. Ackley and Okun favored a delicate mixture of fiscal and monetary tinkering to try to keep the economy not too hot, not too cold but just right (wags called it the Goldilocks theory)."

But that mockery didn't stop "Goldilocks" from allusively entering other areas of discourse. In 1970, the political scientist Robert Dahl wrote in his book After the Revolution about the "Goldilocks dilemma": the attempt to find an optimal size of government that is neither too large nor too small. In 1979, a restaurant critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail said of one eatery, "The food fits the Goldilocks formula: not too good, not too bad, just right for a filling little lunch that dissolves within a couple of hours." And a 1988 article on computer keyboards in the New York Times spoke of the "Goldilocks syndrome":

Computer keyboards, more than any other computer components, are subject to the Goldilocks syndrome. The user goes from one to the next trying to find the one that is just right. This one is too hard, that one is too soft. This one is too crisp, that one is too mushy. This one is too loud, that one is too quiet. This one is too big and clunky, that one is too light and cramped.
—Peter H. Lewis, "Personal Computers: Just the Right Touch" (New York Times, May 10, 1988)

Nowadays one can find frequent mentions of "Goldilocks effects," "Goldilocks arguments," "Goldilocks solutions," and "Goldilocks strategies." The house of the Three Bears was just the beginning for the little flaxen-haired girl; now she's everywhere.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.