Peter Takes on History
January 17, 1929
You can thank the world of cartoons ...
If you search these pages you'll find that I once did a story on colonial slang. I offered words like JOLLIFICATION, a passable alternative to the word “merrymaking.” And CIRCUMBENDIBUS, a word I enthusiastically prefer over its comparatively bland synonym “circuitous.” Sadly, since the 18th Century both words have fallen out of use.
But a surprising number of equally useful slang terms from the late 19th, early 20th century have hung in there. I think we could all give an approximate meaning of words like BLOTTO, BIMBO, CRACKPOT, SPIFFY and TEETOTALER. We’d know what you meant if you said she’s STIR CRAZY or she’s got CABIN FEVER. We know it’s not good if you’re being fitted for a pair of CEMENT OVERSHOES.
But how about if I said, “He’s one tough GAZOOKUS?” I had to look that one up. It means, “the real thing, something authentic, the genuine article. GAZOOKUS. Rhymes with PALOOKAS. PALOOKA? A fighter, right? If you’re an old guy like me you might even have seen the strip Joe Palooka in the Sunday funnies. It ran from 1930 right up until 1984.
Now how about both those words in a single line of a song.
It goes, “I’m one tough gazookus who hates all palookas wot ain’t on the up and square.” Recognize the song? How about now? “I'm strong to the finach, 'cause I eats me spinach ...”
That’s right. He’s Popeye the sailor man. And on this day in history, January 17, 1929 he made his debut.
Cartoonist E. C. Segar invented Popeye to pilot a boat owned by Castor Oyl, Olive Oyl’s younger brother in a comic strip called Thimble Theater. America loved the new character and within two years the artist had ditched Olive’s former boyfriend Ham Gravy and renamed his comic strip Thimble Theater starring Popeye.
According to Popeye historians (yes there are Popeye historians) the character was based on an actual resident of Chester, Illinois, Segar’s home town. The real life Popeye was "Rocky" Fiegel, a gentleman who was known for performing feats of strength, had a jutting chin, no teeth, smoked a pipe and had that characteristic Popeye squint. One of Rocky’s contemporaries confirmed he was “always ready for a fight and always a winner."
By 1938 Popeye was running in 500 papers. More than 600 licensed "Popeye" products in stores. Popeye’s popularity had an outsized effect on America. Of course spinach sales rocketed 33%. And Popeye muscled into our language.
For example, a great many lexicographers attribute the origin of the word WIMP to Popeye’s conniving and cowardly friend J. Wellington Wimpy who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.
Popeye character “Alice the Goon” popularized the use of GOON as a “hired thug.”
And Segar drew Popeye a foolish, dim witted nephew named “DUFUS.”
And then there was Popeye’s pink, supernatural, dog-like pet named Eugene who could magically disappear and reappear anywhere. Eugene could only say one word. Anyone? That’s right, JEEP. The popular name for the Army’s General Purpose vehicle developed at the outset of WWII. But, General Purpose - G P - also sounds a lot like Jeep. But, who am I to argue with the manufacturer!
Anyway, from the 1890’s to the 1960’s comics were a dominant form of entertainment and many American words sprang from their pages. MILQUETOAST originated as a timid comic book character. NEWLYWED, WORRYWORT, SHAZAM, BRAINIAC and of course KRYPTONITE, all from comic books of the 30’s and 40’s.
And the transfer continues today. The Simpsons have given us the words D’OH, added to Oxford Dictionary in 2001 and added by Merriam Webster in 2018, the word EMBIGGEN, meaning to enlarge. In one Simpson's episode a documentary about the founding of Springfield prairie hero Jebediah Springfield is quoted as saying, "a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Bart's teacher, Ms. Krabappel, notes that she'd never heard the word embiggen until she moved to Springfield. To which Lisa's teacher Miss Hoover counters, "I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word."
You know. CROMULENT! Let's see if that catches on.