January 07, 2007

Comic language

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 mailing list:

According to this website, Nov shmoz ka pop? comes from Gene Ahern's strip The Squirrel Cage:

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.

Notary Sojac were the words on a sign that hung on the wall in the Smokey Stover 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 Christmas".)

"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 origin.

Nize baby 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 stuck."...

Nize Baby was published in book form in 1926 to immediate success.

Banana Oil 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 behaviour' (OED); the strip did appear before the OED's first cite, from Wodehouse in 1927.

Jeep comes from Elzie Crisler Segal's strip Thimble Theatre (first published in 1919), which eventually became Popeye.  From the Wikipedia page for Popeye:

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, the vehicle name jeep comes from "general purpose", "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".

Potrzebie comes from Mad magazine.  It even has its own Wikipedia page:

Potrzebie 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.

Mad was also responsible for axolotl (the name of a salamander-like reptile) as a nonsense reference and ferschlugginer (adapted from Yiddish) as a sort of all-purpose modifier of negative affect.  Ferschlugginer hasn't made it into the OED yet; axolotl, 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 Preston.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at January 7, 2007 02:38 PM