September 17, 2007

Snowclone collectors, call your offices

Eagle-eyed reader Josh Kamensky points out a phrasal formula that has popped up in the headings of three separate Language Log posts:

Geoff clearly enjoys this trope, having sent similar requests in other contexts to Deborah Tannen and William Safire. (He even exhorted me to call my office in a May 25, 2007 post, though sad to say I never did.) Having spotted this pattern, Kamensky wonders if this is properly categorized as a snowclone (or perhaps merely a catchphrase or cliché), and he also inquires after the source of the expression. I can take a stab at the second question, which may help in answering the first question.

Young whippersnappers may not remember an age before beepers, pagers, or cellphones. (Of course, in the march of technology, beepers and pagers are now almost forgotten.) There once was a time when a doctor or other professional could only be paged in a public place by means of an announcement over a public address system. The paged person would then presumably scurry to the nearest pay phone (remember those?). Sporting events were prime locales for these announcements. Take this moment from Nelson Algren's 1942 novel Never Come Morning, taking place between rounds in a Chicago boxing match featuring the protagonist Bruno "Lefty Biceps" Bicek:

The announcer climbed over the ropes and spoke into the amplifier.
"Is Dr. Morris Pechter in the house? Dr. Pechter, please call your office. Is Dr. Pechter here?"
"Is that fer him 'r me, Case?" Bruno wondered.
"Not fer neither. You ain't hurt. Fer some croaker in the house is all."

Baseball games were another typical venue for the "call your office" announcement. Here are mentions in reports on World Series games in 1945 and 1957:

Just when the Detroit Tigers belted Chicago's Hank Borowy from the mound, the public address system blared: "Coroner A.L. Brodie, call your office." (Washington Post, Oct. 8, 1945, p. 11)

There's no free publicity for doctors here at the stadium [in Milwaukee]. If they are expecting calls, they are issued numbers, and are paged over the loud-speakers as, "Dr. 123, please call your office." (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 7, 1957, p. 6)

It's hard to know when such announcements became common, since they only get referred to in newspaper articles when they're somehow noteworthy. With the advent of large-venue PA systems (and coin-operated public telephones) around the country, it's probably safe to say that the "call your office" line could be heard on a regular basis by 1930. That was the year when Joseph Crater, a New York Supreme Court judge, mysteriously disappeared after entering a Manhattan taxi. The case attracted an enormous amount of attention, but Crater was never found. A 1979 Washington Post article recounts the effect of Crater's disappearance on the national consciousness:

Within mere months of his disappearance he had become part of the national folklore, the subject of scavenger hunts and night club routines — "Judge Crater, call your office." The phrase "to pull a Crater" entered the idiom. (Washington Post, Aug. 5, 1979 — via Barry Popik)

Other secondary sources back up the popularity of this punchline in the months and years following Crater's disappearance (Arthur S. Koykka's Project Remember says "vaudeville routines of the 1930s often included the line"). Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any contemporaneous accounts. The line first starts popping up in the newspaper databases quite suddenly in 1966, when it was revived as a popular bit of graffiti. Syndicated columnists picked up on it right away:

And this inscription in the gentlemen's room of a lower Manhattan saloon ain't bad either: "Judge Crater — Call Your Office." (Column by Norton Mockridge, Delaware County [Penn.] Daily Times, Sep. 21, 1966, p. 7)

A few days ago, some wag among the many state legislative leaders assembled in conference at a Washington hotel affixed the following note to the lobby bulletin board: "Judge Crater ... Please call your office." ("NEA Washington Notebook," Hagerstown [Md.] Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1966, p. 6)

Kids no longer chalk up the same old words on, walls and subway posters. That's considered very, very old hat these days— and decidedly unsophisticated. Instead, you can, find startling inscriptions like the following: ... Judge Crater, please phone your office. ... The handwriting, concludes Warren Boroson, who copied down the above graffiti, is obviously on the wall. (Bennett Cerf's "Try And Stop Me," Playground Daily News, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Dec. 22, 1966, p. 8)

The American Psychiatric association heard a learned paper based on scribblings on the walls of bars, wash rooms, bus stations, etc. Examples: "Judge Crater — Please Call Your Office Immediately," [etc.] (Column by George Morgenstern, Chicago Tribune, Dec. 31, 1966, p. 1)

It's a bit surprising that this would emerge as a widespread graffito 36 years after Judge Crater disappeared, but he was apparently still remembered as "the most missingest man in America." (He would eventually be eclipsed by D.B. Cooper in 1971 and Jimmy Hoffa in 1975.) In any case, the "X, call your office" line was subsequently applied to various public figures whose whereabouts were unknown, at least temporarily. For instance, it came in handy when Chicago Alderman Fred Hubbard disappeared in May 1971 with $100,000 in federal funds (he was later tracked down and convicted of embezzlement):

A restaurant on Touhy Avenue in Skokie sports this sign: Ald. Fred Hubbard, Call Your Office! (Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1971, p. 18)

Ald. Hubbard: Call your office! (Chicago Defender, Feb. 29, 1972, p. 4, headline)

And when Wilt Chamberlain was brought on as a coach for the San Diego Conquistadors of the American Basketball Association but then didn't show up for two games, the Mar. 1, 1974 Los Angeles Times headline predictably read, "Wilt, Call Your Office."

With the expression firmly entrenched, "X, call your office" began to be extended to other humorous uses, not simply as a joke about someone "pulling a Crater." X could be a literary or historical figure whose presence was rhetorically requested by the writer. (Similar devices include "Paging Dr. Freud...") Conservative columnist George Will took advantage of this trope rather too often. A search on his columns (in the Washington Post and Newsweek, and syndicated elsewhere) finds an enormous number of examples, beginning with "George Orwell, call your office" in a Mar. 8, 1976 column. Here is a list of the other figures that Will called upon from the late '70s to the late '80s:

Henry Adams (June 10, 1979), Pericles (Oct. 21, 1982), Thomas Jefferson (Jan. 2, 1984), Ring Lardner (Oct. 9, 1984 and again on Apr. 14, 1986), Peter Pan (Feb. 3, 1986), Karl Marx (Dec. 28, 1986), Stephen Gould (June 25, 1987), Abraham Lincoln (Jan. 4, 1988), Jesse Jackson (Apr 17, 1988), Edward Gibbon (May 9, 1988), Jefferson and Madison (Dec. 15, 1988), Immanuel Kant (Feb. 27, 1989), and Cotton Mather (May 8, 1989). (Whew!)

Finally, someone took Will to task for his repetitiveness. Reviewing a collection of his columns in the Washington Times (Nov. 5, 1990), Florence King wrote:

Otherwise, in an age that is seeing the certain collapse of English, the miracle is that George Will has only one stylistic tic: "E.T., phone home, your accountant says you have sold 15 million videocassettes." "Immanuel Kant, call your office. Washington cannot keep track of all its categorical imperatives." George Will, phone home. The Graffiti Protection Society has surrounded your house.

That review must have chastened Will to some extent, since he put the kibosh on the "call your office" line for several years. He returned to his old favorite "Orwell, call your office" as the headline for a Newsweek column on Feb. 3, 1997 and since then has used the formula quite sparingly ("Freud, call your office," Aug 10, 2003; "Inspector Clouseau, call your office," Dec. 18, 2006).

So, is "X, call your office" properly considered a snowclone? When the question was brought up at the Language Log water cooler, Adam Albright chimed in:

I have a feeling that it doesn't really count as a snowclone in the sense of "generalization of a specific expression as it enters popular parlance", since it was truly a very common functional formula that has gotten stranded in restricted contexts nowadays.

I personally take a more latitudinarian approach to snowclones. First, I don't think we always need to pinpoint a "specific expression" that is the source of a generalizable template. For instance, the standup comedian Richard Lewis takes credit for popularizing the snowclone "the X from hell" in the '80s, even though we can't trace a single baptismal use of this expression. And in the case of "X, call your office," we actually do have an originating source for the current cliché in "Judge Crater, call your office," from which all subsequent jocular and rhetorical usage apparently flows. The sturdiness of the Crater joke outlasted the original functionality of the expression and has displayed true snowcloniness by spawning countless imitators.

Of course, the template can now be used by younger generations of writers with no firm memory of Crater or the public paging routines that provided the cultural context for the punchline/graffito. As we've seen before, successful snowclones very often take on a life of their own, detached and decontextualized from whatever provenance we might be able to document. But uncovering the hidden histories of such snowclones (now made possible by digitized databases of books, magazines, and newspapers) can certainly be fascinating in its own right, even if the quarry remains as slippery and elusive as Judge Crater, the most missingest man.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at September 17, 2007 01:03 AM