One phrase to rule them all

A recent KQED headline reads “Making Sense of Purple Air vs. AirNow, and a New Map to Rule Them All,” which makes me wonder whether the headline-writers at KQED know where that phrase comes from. I feel like comparing something to Sauron’s One Ring might be seen as an indication that the thing is bad, but the headline writers seemed to be using “to Rule Them All” in a positive sense.

Which led me to do a search to see how other writers (other than Tolkien) have used the phrase. To my surprise, the positive meaning turns out to be pretty common. Some examples:

  • 1968 RAND article about recursive function theory. Headline: “One Equation To Rule Them All.”
  • 2006 math article. Headline: “One Ring to Rule Them All: Certifiably Robust Geometric Perception with Outliers.”
  • 2012 biochemistry or biophysics article. Headline: “One ring to rule them all: trafficking of heme and heme synthesis intermediates in the metazoans.”
  • 2014 NPR puzzle. Headline: “One Word To Rule Them All, And In The Puzzle Bind Them.”
  • 2019 Nature article about a protein ring called cohesin. Headline: “One ring to rule them all.”

So apparently the phrase template one [noun] to rule them all very quickly (1968!) became a pop culture reference without negative connotations, at least for article-title writers. (It seems to be especially irresistible in cases where the thing being referred to is called a ring in a specialized math or science vocabulary.) I’ve certainly seen plenty of other pop culture references enter the general vocabulary, but offhand I’m not thinking of any others that started out with very strong negative connotations but quickly became neutral or even positive.

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