September 20, 2005

P-P-P-Pick up an allusion

In yesterday's (London) Times, Andrew Sullivan has an eloquent essay on "The Politics of Penguins", which features a tantalizing little cultural reference:

Love, it turns out, has very little to do with the mating habits of the Emperor Penguin. According to "The Auk," the scholarly journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, emperor penguins make Liz Taylor look like a lifetime monogamist. Their mate fidelity year to year is 15 percent. Each year, in other words, 85 percent of Emperor penguins get a divorce and p-p-p-pick up a new spouse. Not only that, they're not particularly p-p-p-picky. (Apologies here to American readers. This p-p-p thing is a reference to an old commercial. It's a British thing. Too complicated to explain here).

A Google search for {p-p-p-pick} returns 14,300 results, most equally puzzling to Americans.

Quite a few are news headlines related to penguins, all apparently transparent to British readers:

(link) Females flown in to p-p-p-pick up 'gay' penguins
(link) P-p-p-pick out a penguin

There are lots of other P-P-P-words used without explanation: "PPP Pick up a Pension Credit", a Paintbrush, a picot, a pizza, and so on. There's a movie called The P-P-P-Pick-Up, which according to the Austin gay and lesbian international film festival is "a hilarious short from Germany involving love between a woman and a penguin at a swimming pool".

There are some ads that seem unlikely to have adequate cultural resonance, like an exhortation to "P P P Pick up a [Fiat] Punto", or a recent anti-litter compaign "P P P Pick up a Penguin and Keep Britain Tidy!"

Finally, there's an article at ("Breaking News on Industrial Baking and Snacks") entitled "Pushing Penguins", which explains:

05/06/2003 - McVities, the UK biscuit maker owned by United Biscuits, yesterday launched a major new advertising campaign for its popular Penguin brand of chocolate biscuit, and in particular for the new Penguin Chukka sub-brand. [...]

Penguin Chukka features pieces of chocolate, biscuit and caramel in a flip-top pot, and its launch will be supported by a new TV advert continuing the long-running ‘p.p.p.pick up a Penguin’ campaign.

The ad sees the animated Penguin character getting into trouble with some hairy-faced Scotsmen at a caber-tossing contest in the Highlands. The tagline of the ad is ‘Don't just p.p.p.pick up a Penguin, Chukk one’, and UB claims that it emphasises the way the product can be eaten anytime and anywhere.

And there's a post by Scott Taylor at titled "P-P-P-Please Send Penguins!", which offers a p-p-p-primer from an American point of view:

I recently returned from a trip to England. It’s a wonderful place. But it’s not the castles, the questionable dental work, or the constant drizzle that caught my attention: It was the Penguins.

What’s a Penguin? It is a small candy bar (Or, as those who drive on the wrong side of the road say, a “biscuit”). And it redefines the word scrumptious.

Described on the package as “Milk Chocolate covered Biscuit Bars filled with Chocolate Cream,” the Penguin’s compact size, affordability, and sheer deliciousness make them a revelation. At a store I saw an 18 pack for 99 pence. That’s a bit under two dollars, folks, for 18 lovely Penguins. We have no such deals in our nation.

Scott is especially taken with the fun facts on the wrappers ("a cockroach can live without its head for nine days before it starves to death"; "a rat can last longer without water than a camel"), provides pictures, and thinks that Penguins would conquer America like the Beatles or Harry Potter:

Better than black pudding, a monarchy, or soccer, finally we have a non-musical British import that America will embrace readily. Why is it not here yet? I cannot say. But I do know that Penguins would sweep the nation, loved by all, snuck into movie houses and bought up by the busload.

In full rhetorical flight, he produces a beautiful example of "as such" = "therefore":

It’s almost too good to be true. Jokes, an arctic animal with a speech impediment, and candy, together at last. Perhaps the good folk at McVities don’t know what they have on their hands. As such, I decided to write them a letter.

So a few minutes of Google scholarship over breakfast -- the coffee just finished brewing -- has solved the trans-Atlantic p-p-p-puzzle. It's that "long-running 'p.p.pick up a Penguin' campaign". But not every Yank reads Language Log yet, and I'm not as optimistic as Scott about the openness of the American market to new brands of cookies. We're likely to remain two nations separated by a common commercial culture, unless perhaps The Simpsons feature the p-p-p-pick up a penguin slogan in some future episode.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 20, 2005 06:25 AM