January 17, 2005

Dismortality and puppetutes

In the course of seconding the nomination of Dave Barry for a position on the NYT Op-Ed page, I cited his Ask Mister Language Person response to a lexicographical question. Further research suggests that his answer was wrong, though I am certainly not joining the ranks of those readers that Dave says "are sometimes critical of me because just about everything I write about is an irresponsible lie".

Here's the Q&A:

Q. In the song ``The Joker,'' what is the mystery word that Steve Miller sings in the following verse:
"Some people call me the space cowboy
Some people call me the gangster of love
Some people call me Maurice
'cause I speak of the (SOMETHING) of love.''
A. According to the Broward County Public Library, the word is "pompatus.''
Q. What does "pompatus'' mean?
A. Nothing. Steve made it up. That's why some people call him ``the space cowboy.''

A page on Cecil Adams' site "The Stright Dope", echoed by another one on Chris Harris' Steve Miller fan site, explain the true story. In the beginning was the Medallions' 1954 R&B hit The Letter, which included a line that Steve Miller apparently heard as

Let me whisper sweet words of epismetology and discuss the pompitous of love

Miller used his version of these neologisms in his 1972 song Enter Maurice, whose liner notes give the relevant sentence

My dearest darling,
come closer to Maurice so I can whisper sweet words of epismetology in your ear
and speak to you of the pompitous of love.

And in The Joker, the terms "space cowboy", "gangster of love" and Maurice all refer to earlier songs. No lyrics were published with the 1973 album on which The Joker appeared, but the word was spelled "pompatus" in the sheet music for Steve Miller's The Joker published in the songbook Rock Hits Through the Years, and that's the spelling adopted for the 1996 movie The Pompatus of Love.

But never mind whether it's "pompatus" or "pompitous". According to Vernon Green, who composed and performed The Letter, Miller mis-heard the original line [quoted from Harris' page]:

Vernon Green, the author of The Letter, says, "You have to remember, I was a very lonely guy at the time. I was only fourteen years old, I had just run away from home, and I walked with crutches." The uneducated but imaginative youth was prone to fantasy, so he just made up the lyrics. 'Pismotality' described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved.

"And it's not pompitous," he emphasizes. "What I said was 'puppetuse', which is a term I coined to mean a secret paper doll fantasy figure."

According to Cecil Adams, "[t]he mystery words, [his assistant J.K. Fabian] ascertained after talking with Green, were 'puppetutes' and 'pizmotality.' (Green wasn't much for writing things down, so the spellings are approximate)."

According to this page, "Frank Zappa and a crew of linguists are still deciphering 'Sweet words of pismotology' and 'the pulpitudes of love' from the Medallions' 'The Letter'". Carrying the enterprise forward, let's put aside "pismotology" for the moment, and take up pompitous/pompatus/pulpitudes/puppetuse/puppetutes.

It's pretty clear, based on Green's paper-doll explanation, that the root morpheme must have been puppet. The evidence so far seems to be equivocal as to whether the second part was -us (or maybe -ous or -is?), by analogy to words like stimulus, or -ude by analogy to words like pulchritude , or -ute by analogy to prostitute. I haven't had a chance to listen carefully to a good-quality dub of the original recording, but I wonder whether Green might have said "puppetutes", just as J.K. Fabian reports, and meant it as a blend of puppets and prostitutes? As a 14-year-old in 1954 Los Angeles, he probably knew the word prostitute only as a fancy term for a sexually attractive and available woman.

There's an interesting discussion of these words in a 2002 article by Greil Marcus from Los Angeles Magazine, "In the secret country: Walter Mosley, doo-wop and '50s L.A". Marcus talks about Walter Mosley's character Easy Rawlins in 1956, when "his own story threatens to dissolve"

Anything can unmask him. And he admits it: "I nodded and bowed. My wife had left me, had taken my child, had gone off with my friend. There was no song on the radio too stupid for my heart."

That stupid song might have been the Jewels' "Hearts of Stone" or the Penguins' "Earth Angel," made in Los Angeles in 1954; Jesse Belvin's "I'm Only a Fool" or Don Julian and the Meadowlarks' "Heaven and Paradise," made in Los Angeles in 1955; Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns' "Gloria," made in Los Angeles in 1956. But I like to think it was the Medallions' "The Letter," made in Los Angeles in 1954.

It is a profoundly stupid record--and also profoundly strange. There's no instrumentation except for a quietly rumbling piano. A few weak voices go "Oh--uh uh uh--oh" behind the lead singer, Vernon Green. He starts off crooning around one word: "Darling." As the backing singers shift into long "ooos," Green stops singing and starts talking. He speaks in a clipped, almost effete voice, not like a man but like a boy trapped in a fantasy he can't even begin to believe. "Darling--I'm writing this letter--knowing that you may never read it." The listener doesn't believe the person the singer is writing to exists.
As the singer goes on, his voice crumbles with puerile emotion. He seems confused, barely able to remember what he's talking about. He sounds like he's underwater, but he's in love with his own voice. "Darling--what is there words--on this earth--to be unable--to stop loving you," he says, swirling. "Oh! my darling!" Then Vernon Green--16, crippled by polio, who would wander the streets of Watts on his crutches, making up songs, trying to find people to sing with him--offered the words that would make him immortal, or at the least unsolvable. "And to kiss, and love--and then have to wait ... Oh! my darling. Let me whisper, sweet words of dismortality--and discuss the pompatus of love. Put it together, and what do you have? Matrimony!"

Dismortality. Pompatus. Matrimony! He sounds like a complete idiot. At the same time he sounds like someone who knows something you never will.

After describing the cultural history of mid-50s doo-wop, especially the Los Angeles version, Marcus takes up Vernon Green's neologisms again:

WHAT WAS VERNON GREEN REALLY SAYING IN "The Letter"? Nearly 20 years later, in 1972, Steve Miller took the phrase pompatus of love and put it in his "Enter Maurice"; the next year he highlighted the weird phrase in his number one hit "The Joker." Twenty-three years after that, screenwriters Richard Schenkman, Jon Cryer, and Adam Oliensis took the phrase for the title of a movie, and it meant ... Cryer decided he had to find out.

It was more than 40 years since the Medallions first stepped up to a microphone, but in Los Angeles there were still people willing to pay Vernon Green, now in a wheelchair, to sing "The Letter," and he wasn't hard to find. Dismortality--it meant, Green told Cryer, "words of such secrecy they could only be spoken to the one you loved." Pompatus, Green said, was a 15-year-old's word for "a secret paper-doll fantasy figure who would be my everything and bear my children." Dismortality can't be factored, but it signifies effortlessly. It communicates a will to escape the limits of ordinary life, to cheat death. Pompatus is a real word--in the dictionary, if only in a faint line in the Oxford English Dictionary. It's hard to imagine that Vernon Green ever learned it, but not that he found it, found it contained in the ordinary words anyone might speak. Pompatus means to act with pomp and splendor--exactly what, in "The Letter," a teenage Vernon Green tried to do. It was a specter he chased for the rest of his life until, following a show on March 4, 2000, he suffered a stroke, dying nine months later, on Christmas Eve.

Well, Marcus seems to miss the "puppet" morpheme altogether, in favor of a hypothesized connection to pomp and circumstances. It's a plausible idea, but it seems to be contradicted by Green's own testimony.

"Dismortality" makes a lot of sense as a coinage for "words of such secrecy they could only be spoken to the one you loved", and the missing [r] is easy to explain given the intermittent r-lessness of African-American speech. Still, I wonder why everyone else who has listened to the song and spoken with Green seems to have heard a [p] rather than a [d]. Maybe there was forward place assimilation from the [f] in the phrase "of dis..."? Maybe Green himself blended dis- and mis- to get pis-? Or maybe Marcus is on the wrong track, and the word was something like a blend of abysmal and totality, maybe with a bit of episcopal and even epistemology thrown in? Frank Zappa may be dead and gone, but the linguists are still on the case.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 17, 2005 01:44 PM