tanstaafl n.

(used as a proverb to assert that everything has a cost, hidden or otherwise)

A long-established maxim, used widely in various genres (especially economics), but associated in SF with Robert Heinlein, whose use of it in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress spread the term throughout SF fandom.

For a discussion of the history of the full phrase, see the Quote Investigator’s discussion.

[acronym < there ain't no such thing as a free lunch]


SF Fandom

  • 1949 P. D. Utt (title)

    Tanstaafl: A Plan for a New Economic World Order.

  • 1966 R. A. Heinlein Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in Worlds of If Feb. 108/2 page image Robert A. Heinlein bibliography

    '"Oh, "tanstaafl." Means "There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch." And isn’t,' I added, pointing to a FREE LUNCH sign across room, 'or these drinks would cost half as much.'

  • 1989 M. Lackey Burning Water 157

    TANSTAAFL, my friend. β€˜Β˜There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.’™ Magical energy has to come from somewhere.

Research requirements

antedating 1949

Research History
Rick Hauptmann submitted a cite from a reprint of Robert Heinlein's "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress"; Mike Christie verified this in the 1966 original magazine appearance.
Elizabeth McCoy submitted a 1998 cite from McCoy's Lilim section in the "In Nomine Infernal Players Guide".
Malcolm Farmer submitted a 1975 cite from an article by F. Paul Wilson.
Michael Dolbear submitted a cite from a 1995 reprint of Mercedes Lackey's "Burning Water".

Jerry Pournelle has said that he and his father both used the phrase as early as the 1930's. His father was a radio personality and made up a number of slogans and jingles, but Pournelle does not know whether his father made up the phrase or not.

Last modified 2020-12-27 10:28:08
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.