February 15, 2004

Shoes, torches, mothers

This morning's NYT reports the choice of Michael McKean to replace Harvey Fierstein as Edna Turnblad in the Broadway show Hairspray. The story features two separate generalized clichés involving bras, as well as a touching reprise of Oscar Wilde's witticism about men, women and mothers.

One of the generalized clichés is in the headline: "Passing the bra: the search for a new Edna". The other is in a quote from McKean: "Harvey has left some big cups to fill. Seeing him do the part for the first time, I just wanted to shoot myself."

I think that we're meant to understand "passing the bra" by analogy to "passing the torch", rather than by reference to passing "the buck", "the bar exam", "the hat", "the time", "the stone" or "the point of no return." The fact that we figure this out effortlessly, without even noticing, is an interesting (and I think unstudied) instance of psycholinguistic ambiguity resolution. Note that we don't do it by simple-minded semantic analogy -- a bra is surely more like a hat than like a torch -- nor by simple frequency counting, since "pass(ing) the buck" gets 63,800 ghits to 32,800 for "pass(ing) the torch". The 2,131 ghits for "pass(ing) the flame" and the 17,500 for "pass(ing) the baton" don't make up the difference, especially if we were to factor in the alternatives that yield a meaning similar to "hat", such as "collection plate".

The "big X to fill" pattern is not so idiomatically protean. Of course there are compositional uses like "The venue is a big hall to fill", but the only idiomatic cases seem to be generalizations of the cliché "big shoes to fill", which has 25,300 ghits.

"Big boots to fill" is apparently a regional or perhaps idiolectal variant, with 1,010 ghits:

Fellow World Cup winner Richard Hill added: "Whoever takes his place will have very big boots to fill...."
Yvonne is such a great secretary. She's going to leave some big boots to fill.
The C-2500L then as the direct replacement for the D-620L has big boots to fill..

And then there is a long, long tail of self-consciously cute examples involving other kinds of footwear:

The Rink Rats want to thank Steve for his hard work during his tenure as Manager and we know he has left some big skates to fill.
First-team selections Jessica Mendoza and Sarah Beeson, and second-team selection Robin Walker, left big cleats to fill on the mound, at first base and shortstop, respectively.
When King David died, Solomon, who had a sinking feeling that he had some mighty big sandals to fill, succeeded him.
"Those are some big sandals to fill," laughs Sebastian Bach -- better known to some as the wild-tressed former frontman for Skid Row -- as he prepares for a national tour of the rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.
With talented backstrokers, medley swimmers, and divers rounding out their roster, the Tigers' only glaring hole going into this season is at distance free. School record holder Kevin Volz '02, who came in third at Easterns, has left some big flip-flops to fill.
Considering the past 15 years, the new crop of hoopsters has some mighty big sneakers to fill.
The new LS Director is Chris Walker who realizes that he has very big hiking boots to fill!
Replacing last years running back Tim Deasey was also the coaches mind as he has big spikes to fill.
Although they have big running shoes to fill now that three-time All-America Mary Proulx has graduated, the Owls believe this could be the year they finally gain the elusive national berth.
Hank Williams has some mighty big cowboy boots to fill.
The 1997 Westfield High School girls Gymnastic team has some big slippers to fill.
Big stilettoes to fill (from a headline about the musical Cabaret)
With Rosie and Sally Jessy packing it in and Oprah set to retire in 2005, there are some big pumps to fill.
Maffei was just about as beloved on the Street as CFOs can be; Connors will have some big galoshes to fill in rainy Redmond.

By associative transfer, with even less semantic coherence than usual, there are some examples involving "feet" and "paws":

Fleury said on Friday that he had no idea which team will draft him. He pondered the possibility of following recently retired Patrick Roy in Colorado. "That would be big feet to fill there," Fleury said.
Butchie retiring has left some big 'paws' to fill, but this youngster shows great potential of being 'the one'. (from the North Wapiti Husky Kennels Iditarod "Sponsor-a-Dog" program)

A few non-foot-associated articles of clothing also appear, such as "Big wings to fill" as a headline about casting the play Angels in America, or "One thing's for sure, Spider-Man 2 will have some very big tights to fill". And the teasers for Amy Reiter's "audio dish" of 10/18/2000 show anticipatory plagiarism of the NYT headline writers "big cups":

Boy George is all over Eminem, Marilyn Manson hates bad f***ing grammarians, Shirley Jones may have some big cups to fill and Russell Crowe bares all.

There's something curious about this set of expressions, if you think about it: did anyone ever actually inherit the footwear of their predecessor in a job or role? Certainly no one does so now, but I'm skeptical that anyone ever did. So how did the phrase get started, and why does it have such an enduring appeal?

Finally, for those who are still with me, a reward.

According to the NYT article that we started with, Michael McKean was originally scheduled to fly in from LA for an audition on January 19, but on January 14, "[his] mother, who lived on Long Island in the house where she had raised her family, had a major stroke." Someone else took his spot on January 19, and his mother died on January 21.

"It's a little lesson on how life goes sometimes," Mr. McKean mused. "The folks from `Hairspray' called and said, `If you want to blow it off, we understand.' But it really was a very welcome diversion, because, while I'm juggling all the funeral stuff and this house full of things my mother never threw away, I said, `Let me go meet with them anyway.' "

McKean's tryout was "spectacular", and he got the part.

The real challenge for Mr. McKean will be to give the jokes their full due by finding the womanliness in his maleness. It's a job that seems timely to him. "I keep thinking about that lovely quote from Wilde," he said. " `All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.' So this gig is for my mom. She would have loved it."

I think that's touching, I really do.

[Update: John Bell emails

Your recent blog entry led me to find:


It begins: "Out-of-towner Mark Salyer has some big wigs to fill as the lead in the Actor's Express production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch . . ."


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 15, 2004 09:00 AM