‘stop the world, I want to get off’: meaning and early occurrences

The phrase stop the world, I want to get off means I’m tired of life, but is intended serio-ironically, not in genuine despair.

It is often, but erroneously, claimed that this phrase originated in Stop the World—I Want to Get Off 1, the title of a musical with music, lyrics and book by the English composer, lyricist and playwright Leslie Bricusse (born 1931) and the English actor, singer and songwriter Anthony Newley (1931-1999). This musical was first produced at the Manchester Palace, Lancashire, England, on Tuesday 20th June 1961. The production transferred to the Queen’s Theatre, in the West End of London, on Thursday 20th July 1961. The musical then opened at the Shubert Theatre, New York City, on Wednesday 3rd October 1962.

1 According to the U.S. pianist, composer, author, comedian and actor Oscar Levant (1906-1972) in The Unimportance of Being Oscar (New York: Pocket Books, 1969), the title of this musical originated in a graffito:

Everyone has heard that the playwrights Albee and Newley got their titles Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Stop the World I Want to Get Off from graffiti signs.

In fact, the phrase stop the world, I want to get off was in usage before the musical. Here are the earliest occurrences that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From the nationally syndicated column It Happened Last Night, written by the U.S. journalist, columnist and author Harvey Earl Wilson (1907-1987), and published in May 1951—for example in the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) of Thursday 10th:

TODAY’S BEST LAUGH: Nowadays when you read the papers, according to Irving Heller 2, you feel like saying, “Stop the world! I want to get off.”

2 This probably refers to Irving Heller, a men’s clothing stylist who numbered among his customers Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), 33rd President of the USA (1945-53), the baseball player Joe DiMaggio (Joseph Paul DiMaggio – 1914-1999) and many radio, stage and screen celebrities.

2-: From A week-end reflection, published in the Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 21st July 1956:

A modern popular song has the significant title “Stop the world, I want to get off.” It is the latest expression of a desire to escape and thus contract out of life’s responsibilities.

3-: A variant occurs in the opening sentence of Mysteries of the Sky, an article published in the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Missouri) of Sunday 30th December 1956:

Most of us have had moments when we felt like saying, “Stop this whirling world, I want to get off.”

4-: From a letter by ‘Grandma Baillie’, in the column Reading a Columnists Mail, by Tex Reynolds, published in The Racine Journal-Times (Racine, Wisconsin) of Sunday 10th February 1957:

Grandma Writes About Scrapbooks
Dear Tex: Stop the world, I want to get off! You ought to be able to do that, with that short handled broom you were swinging around on the curling rink ice a few days ago. Do you have a bit of room for “Granny?”

5-: From the column Jack Kofoed Says, published in The Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) of Friday 22nd February 1957:

How do you like the title of the new Calypso number written by Michael Strange and Tony Matas, “Stop the World: I Want to Get Off.” It’s black magic.

(This calypso song was mentioned on several occasions later in 1957.)

6-: From the Great Bend Daily Tribune (Great Bend, Kansas) of Sunday 3rd November 1957:

For the century’s best cartoon caption we vote unanimously in favor of one that appeared recently in a magazine. A harried, dumpy little man is saying:
Stop the world. I want to get off.”

7-: From the Catalog of Copyright Entries: Third Series, Volume 11, Part 5, Number 2: Music: July-December 1957 (Washington, D.C.: Copyright Office, The Library of Congress, 1958): a song entitled Stop the World, I Want to Get Off (words by Rolf M. Erickson; music by Lee Armentrout) was copyrighted on Monday 14th October 1957.

8-: From Typewriters Tick Out Theme Song On Editors’ Transatlantic Flight, by Donald L. Breed, Journal-Standard Editor-Publisher, published in the Freeport Journal-Standard (Freeport, Illinois) of Tuesday 28th January 1958—the author gives the account of a flight to Paris in a Transworld Airline plane:

Somebody down the aisle is reading the New York Herald-Tribune with the story by Marguerite Higgins who says that a new popular song is going the rounds and it’s called “Stop this world! I want to get off!
We have got our feet off the ground temporarily, if not permanently. We can’t stop the world but we’re going to try to get around it, anyway.

9-: From the following advertisement, published in the Rockford Morning Star (Rockford, Illinois) of Saturday 8th February 1958:

STOP THE WORLD
I WANT TO GET OFF
Get away from it all . . . take off that apron this Sunday . . . try our . . .
SUNDAY SPECIAL

BREADED VEAL CUTLET $1.35
Mushroom Sauce          Whipped Potatoes
Garden Vegetable          Salad
Hot Rolls & Butter          Beverage
EDGE-O’-TOWN

RESTAURANT ● 4404 E. State ● 8-5058

10-: From Ruby’s Report, by Earl Ruby, Courier-Journal Sports Editor, published in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) of Saturday 15th February 1958:

Sign On Bar Room Wall—“Stop the world. I want to get off.”