Comic Strips and the OED

Comic Strips and the OED

When revising an OED entry, our chief concern is that the quotations reflect the reality of current and historical usage: we include the earliest example of a word, sense, or phrase that we can find; we strive to illustrate typicality (while occasionally including unusual material where it’s particularly relevant or helpful); and we attempt to remain objective, using corpus evidence and other tools to counteract the various blind spots and other idiosyncrasies that we each possess. However, when revising Blockhead n., there was one source that I knew I had to include. Therefore, as part of the accompanying evidence of usage for sense 1 of BLOCKHEAD (a word whose illustrious pedigree, as we now know, extends all the way back to Thomas More), you will find a quotation from a 1960 edition of the Texas newspaper Paris News, standing for all the newspapers which, on the 20th of May, printed a syndicated comic strip in which the unluckiest baseball player in history, having previously and miraculously stolen second and then third base, attempts to score his first ever run:

              Charlie Brown is trying to steal home!! Slide, Charlie Brown! Slide!..Oh, you blockhead!

I candidly admit that this quotation from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts owes its place largely to my great affection for the strip, but it is also a fine example of the word’s modern, colloquial register as a mild term of depreciation, while simultaneously being a rare example of an OED quotation taken from a comic strip which doesn’t show a decisive point in the word’s history (except arguably in terms of cultural salience), but is merely a good illustrative quotation.

Why are comic strips so rarely cited in the OED, when the newspapers in which they are widely found are cited so frequently? To a large extent, their format counts against them: the average comic strip contains only a small number of words (supplementing the illustrations which are the main attraction of the art form) to begin with, and even nowadays, when OED editors carry out much of their own research using electronic resources rather than being dependent on submissions from volunteers (valuable as the latter continue to be), these words are often less accessible than the text of the surrounding articles, due to being less readily machine-readable and hence less likely to show up in searches. As alluded to above, many of the OED’s quotations from comic strips owe their inclusion to the fact that they are crucial to the history of an entry: this is true, for instance, of another Peanuts citation at Security Blanket n. (a term not coined by Schulz, but widely popularized by the blue blanket taken everywhere by Linus Van Pelt). Similarly, Goon n. (not yet revised) owes a measure of its success to Alice the Goon, a character in E. C. Segar’s Popeye, although the word predates its use in the strip. Comic strips do sometimes provide our earliest evidence for a particular sense or phrase, as in the case of the delightful expression ‘to be a bear’, meaning to be someone who is exceptionally gifted, adept, persistent, or remarkable (first recorded in a comic strip published in 1908), and sometimes even for an entire OED entry, as in the case of Frammis n., apparently first recorded in a 1940 instance of Fritzi Ritz, the strip which evolved into the better-known (and still running) Nancy. It is unlikely that either of these originated in the comic strips, and in general the medium is more likely to reflect usage than define it – although Maurice Dodd’s The Perishers may actually have coined, and certainly popularized, the adjective Go-Faster, most famously used to denote the stripes with which Wellington modified his racing carts.

The area in which comic strips have made a big impact on the English language, however, is in characterization. Colonel Blimp, before he became a type, was a character appearing in David Low’s cartoons in the Evening Standard. H. T. Webster’s meek and timid Caspar Milquetoast gave his name to a class of inoffensive and ineffectual people, while George Baker’s inept World War 2-era soldier the Sad Sack continues to typify inept misfits in the English-speaking world. Occasionally, these characters create strange after-impressions in the language, as in the case of Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff, who still serve as exemplars of the odd couple, but thanks to the unpredictable vagaries of Cockney rhyming slang, also denote the condition of being hard of hearing. Hence, by the time-honoured tradition of knocking the ends off rhyming slang phrases, we arrive at “he’s a bit mutton”, a comment that one assumes would have mystified (the American) Mr Fisher.

It is R. F. Outcault, though, who bears away the crown. In his day, his cartoons were so popular that they had a huge effect on the newspaper preferences of the American public: when he took his ‘Yellow Kid’ character from the New York World to the New York Journal, the former hired a replacement artist to continue the Kid’s exploits in the World, leading to discussions of the ‘Yellow Kid’ phenomenon in the popular press – and hence to the application of ‘yellow’ to lurid or sensational journalism. (For a fuller discussion of this fascinating semantic development, see Peter Gilliver’s release notes from January 2018.) Outcault was clearly not satisfied with this lexical contribution, because his next big comic strip success, Buster Brown, gave rise to not one, but two OED entries: Buster Brown n. , and Mary Jane n.1 The eponymous Buster, a boy with the dress sense of Little Lord Fauntleroy but the capacity for creating havoc of his namesake, Richmal Crompton’s (Just) William Brown, gave his name to a style of clothing, a haircut (think Prince Valiant – to namecheck another comic-inspired OED entry), and perhaps most significantly, a brand of boy’s shoes, to the girl’s equivalent of which his sister Mary Jane lent her name.

Many major authors have made less of an impression on the English language than Outcault, but it tells us something that the most recent of the examples I’ve mentioned (The Perishers) dates to the 1960s, and most of them come from the first half of the 20th century. It is impossible to imagine newspaper rivalries springing up around comic strips nowadays, particularly in a time when newspaper sales are themselves in decline, and for whatever reason, none of the many popular and successful comic strips of the last fifty years have managed to lexicalize a ‘type’. But as we have seen, language changes and develops in unpredictable ways, so I don’t think I’ll count out comic strips just yet.


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