In the comics back on 28 December, we read about Griffwords, expressions dear to the
cartoon character Griffy (cartoonist Bill Griffith's version of
himself) in Zippy
Echoes of old comic strips:
Some notes, most suggested by postings to the American Dialect Society
According to this
, Nov shmoz ka pop?
comes from Gene Ahern's strip The
The protagonist of The Squirrel Cage (which was first
seen on Sunday, June 21, 1936) was a little hitchhiker referred to only
as "The Little Hitchhiker". He had a long, white beard, wore an
enormous tam on his head, and covered his body with a black smock or
overcoat (the beard got in the way of knowing for sure)...
The little hitchhiker would get into strange little adventures by
standing beside the road, his thumb out, uttering phrases in some
incomprehensible language, a few of which were translated but most not.
The most frequent of them, "Nov shmoz ka pop?" (never translated),
etched itself into the American consciousness to the point where, to
this very day, many people still wonder how that silly thing ever got
into their heads.
were the words on
a sign that hung on the wall in the Smokey
strip (1935-1973). From the Wikipedia page
Smokey Stover was a comic strip written
and drawn by Bill Holman from March 10, 1935 until he retired in 1973.
It was distributed through the Chicago Tribune and was the longest
lasting of the comic strips of the "screwball comedy" genre.
The strip featured Smokey the firefighter, in his two-wheeled fire
truck called "The Foomobile", fire chief Cash U. Nutt, and his wife
Cookie, with her question-mark pompadour. Odd bits of philosophy, and
recurrent signs carrying bizarre phrases such as "Notary Sojac" and
"1506 Nix Nix" were featured in the strip. (Holman described the phrase
"Notary Sojac" as Gaelic for "horsecrap" and as Gaelic for "Merry
"Foo" was one of these recurring nonsense words and was taken up by
World War II's "Foo Fighters". Foo may have been inspired by the French
word for fire, feu, but Holman never gave a straight answer as to the
comes from Milt Gross
's Gross Exaggerations
"Gross Exaggerations" began as an
illustrated column in the New York World. What made it unique, besides
Gross' homespun drawing style, was the use of phonetic dialect in the
dialogue. The dialect was based on that of Jewish immigrants who were
struggling to make themselves understood in a new language.
"Hollo! Hoperator! Hollo! Who's dere by de shvitzbud? I vant
Haudabon--hate--vun--ho--fife. Hate! HATE! Vun, two, tree, fur, fife,
seex, savan, HATE!"
The column featured the dialogues between stereotypical Jewish mothers
conversing out the windows of their tenement. First Floor and Second
Floor were the indications of who was speaking, with an occasional
interjection from Third Floor. On the Fourth Floor, there's a baby. So
not only were the columns about life in New York, they occasionally
strayed into what could only be considered Fractured Fairy Tales told
to entertain the "nize baby." One might be "Nize ferry-tail from
Elledin witt de wanderful lemp", another "from Jack witt de binn
Baby was published in book form in 1926 to immediate success.
was another Milt
Gross strip, also from the 20s. Gross might be the source of this
expression as slang meaning 'nonsense; insincere or insane talk or
); the strip
did appear before the OED
first cite, from Wodehouse in 1927.
comes from Elzie Crisler
Segal's strip Thimble Theatre
(first published in 1919), which eventually became Popeye
. From the Wikipedia page
Other regular characters in the strip
were J. Wellington Wimpy, a moocher and a hamburger lover who would
"gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today"; George W. Geezil, a
local cobbler who speaks in a heavily affected accent and habitually
attempted to murder or wish death upon Wimpy; Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye's
belligerent and woman-hating father; and Eugene the Jeep, a yellow,
vaguely dog-like animal from Africa with magical powers.
According to the OED
vehicle name jeep
comes from "g
urpose", "prob. influenced by the
name 'Eugene the Jeep', a creature of amazing resource and power, first
introduced into the cartoon strip 'Popeye' on 16 March 1936".
comes from Mad
magazine. It even has its
own Wikipedia page
is a Polish word popularized by its non sequitur use as a running gag
in the early issues of Mad not long after the comic book began in 1952.
The word is pronounced "pot-SCHEB-yeh" in Polish and is a declined form
of the noun "potrzeba" (which means "need"), but in "English" it was
purportedly pronounced "PAH-tur-zee-bee" or "POT-ra-zee-bee." Its
Eastern European feel was a perfect fit for the New York Jewish style
of the magazine.
Mad editor Harvey Kurtzman spotted the word printed in the Polish
language section of a multi-languaged "Instructions for Use" sheet
accompanying a bottle of aspirin, and Kurtzman, who was fascinated with
unusual words and Yiddishisms, decided it would make an appropriate but
meaningless background gag. After cutting the word out of the
instruction sheet, he made copies and used rubber cement to paste
"Potrzebie" randomly into the middle of Mad satires.
Not yet in the OED
was also responsible for axolotl
(the name of a
salamander-like reptile) as a nonsense reference and ferschlugginer
Yiddish) as a sort of all-purpose modifier of negative affect. Ferschlugginer
hasn't made it into
, of course, is there, but
without a reference to Mad
So the Griffwords go back 70+ years. A lot of past to dwell on.
(Thanks to the ADS-L posters on this topic: in alphabetical order, John
Baker, Wilson Gray, Larry Horn, Jon Lighter, Alison Murie, and Dennis
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 7, 2007 02:38 PM