“Oh, X the flowers of spring!”

Back in June, my grand-daughter (age 6) went, with her mother, to her first adult stage production (that’s ‘stage production for adults [as opposed to children]’, not ‘stage production with sexual content or taboo language’): Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, as done to a treat by the Lyric Theatre of San Jose, in the Montgomery Theater  in San Jose (note theatre/theater ‘theatrical company’ and ‘building for theatrical productions’). We were worried that she wouldn’t be able to sit still and reasonably quiet — she is a very active, and sometimes noisy, child — out of boredom or incomprehension and expected that she would then just fall asleep as the rather long operetta continued into late hours.

But no. Opal was transfixed. Delighted, all the way through — except for Katisha’s lament, “Alone, and yet alive” in Act II, which she thought was stupid and boring and went on too long (I have to say I’m sympathetic to her view). Granted, Elizabeth had given her some prep for the event, including practice on “a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block” (which is not only lots of fun to say or sing, but also is satisfyingly gruesome). Still, it was a great success, and now Opal listens to recordings of the songs, sings some of them, has figured out that (thanks to the intentions that she and Henry, son of our friend Jason, have to get married when they grow up) she is Jason’s daughter-in-law elect, and generally bathes in a happy and spirited G&S glow.

Elizabeth and I have done our best to induce her to join us in watching at least one of the DVDs of the Mikado that I have — the second of these will bring me, eventually, to my point — but she has firmly resisted, without explanation, though I expect that for her anything other than the Lyric Theatre, live, would be like a re-make, and we all know that re-makes are almost never as good as the originals. (We’ve tried explaining that musical productions and plays aren’t like movies, that people perform — not re-make, perform — the good ones over and over again, but she’s had enough experience with re-done versions of classic children’s books to be deeply suspicious of some new version of the Mikado.)

Ah, yes, those two performances of the Mikado on DVD. The first is a classic D’Oyly Carte production (filmed in 1966). I was concerned that Opal might find it too stagey (in make-up, gesture, facial expressions, and so on — there’s a big difference between seeing things from the audience in a theater and seeing those same performers in camera shots taken close up), and in fact there’s the same concern with the second DVD, the version produced in 1987 by Jonathan Miller with the English National Opera and televised for Thames Television — what’s often referred to as the “Eric Idle version”, because it has the former Python playing Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, though it should really be called the “Jonathan Miller version”, since it’s Miller’s re-working of traditional G&S productions that makes this version stand out.

People tend to adore the Idle Miller show or to detest it. Partly (in either case) for Idle’s performance (he’s scarcely your standard Savoyard, and he’s not as strong a singer as the pros) and partly for Miller’s re-imagining of the Japanese town of Titipu as a late-Victorian English seaside resort. (I think it’s brilliant, and the change of setting brings out the social satire in Gilbert’s words. I mean, the people and settings — not to mention the language of “Mi-ya sa-ma / On n’m-ma no ma-yé / etc.” — in Doyly Carte productions aren’t authentically Japanese, but fantastical burlesques of “Japanese”.)

Which brings us to the song, “The flowers that bloom in the spring” (No. 20, in Act II — yes, I have a score), in which Ko-Ko cries out

And that’s what I mean when I say, or I sing,
“Oh, bother the flowers that bloom in the spring”
Tra la la la la,
Tra la la la la,
“Oh, bother the flowers of spring!”

(whereupon he, Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum, Pitti-Sing, and Pooh-Bah tra-la-la together in full voice).

Idle sings that first bother (in the libretto) as bugger, which seems to have scandalized some people viewing the production; even I find it a bit startling in the context. (The following time he sings bother.) Other people think that bother is “just” a Victorian euphemism for the taboo verb bugger, so this version merely strips away the veneer of politeness and restores the “real” feeling in Ko-Ko’s dismay at the prospect of having to marry Katisha or face death (reader, she married him; as Elizabeth reassured Opal beforehand, “In the end, they all get married.”)

There’s a serious question about whether most upper-middle-class Victorians perceived bother as a euphemism; after all, what are historically euphemisms are often learned, and then used, simply as informal expressions, without reference to (or awareness of) their disreputable origins. Ko-Ko’s bother was probably seen by audiences at the time as just an expression of annoyance. (To modern American ears, it sounds very British or very old-fashioned or both. There is some suggestion from recent British slang dictionaries, which don’t have entries for exclamatory transitive bother with an object other than it, that it has disappeared from British usage as well as American.)

But the exclamatory use of transitive bother (as in “Oh, bother the flowers of spring!”) almost surely has its origins in the gutter. It’s there in the syntax, as is clear even in OED2, which averts its eyes from bugger:

In the imperative (logically 3rd pers. sing. with implied subject after analogy of verbs of cursing) as a mild imprecation

(Just to remind you: ordinary transitive bother, with a variety of senses — ‘pester, worry, annoy, trouble, disturb’ — has been around for a long time.)

The analogy in question is to subjectless cursing uses of edgy-or-worse verbs like blastdamn, fuck, screw, and of course bugger:

Oh, damn/fuck/screw/bugger the flowers of spring! ‘To hell with the flowers of spring!’ (with various imports)

(There is a considerable literature on these imprecative constructions and related ones.)

OED2 has cites for this use of bother from 1844 (Dickens), 1855 (Thackeray), and 1877 (Fraser’s Magazine). I trust that up-dates will add Ko-Ko’s “bother the flowers of spring!”

OED2 folds two other uses of bother in with this one:

also bother it! and absol. bother! as an exclamation indicating annoyance

The first is just a specialization of the subjectless transitive to occurrence with vague it referring to the situation in general — as in Damn/Darn/Blast/Fuck it! OED2 doesn’t actually give any cites for this use.

The second — for which OED2 has cites from 1840 (Dickens again) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1850) — could have originated as a truncation of the first, as with other imprecative verbs (Damn!/Darn!/Fuck!). Or it could have derived historically from the noun bother (a nouning of the ordinary verb bother), conveying something like ‘What a bother!’. Something like this latter analysis is suggested by the way it’s used in Winnie-the-Pooh (1926); from ch. II, “In Which: Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place”:

“Oh help!” said Pooh. “I’d better go back.”

“Oh bother!” said Pooh. “I shall have to go on.”

“I can’t do either!” said Pooh. “Oh help and bother!”

(Let’s hope this one will also make it into an OED revision.)

Note the coordination of help and bother, and the absence of a comma before bother in the second line.

Whatever its origin(s), free-standing Bother! still seems to be around in the U.K.; both Bother! and Bother it! are in the Concise New Partridge (2008) as expressions of annoyance.

Meanwhile, the Partridge 8th ed. (1984) has the colloquial I’m bothered and I’ll be bothered (presumably in things like “I’ll be bothered if I go there again!”) as “a disguised form of swearing”, with a reference to bugger, which is still “coarse slang” in its imprecative uses, as well as in the expressions bugger up and bugger off.

Oh bother! I started with the flowers of spring and have descended to buggery.

14 Responses to ““Oh, X the flowers of spring!””

  1. John Lawler Says:

    Have you considered “Topsy-Turvy”?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    To John Lawler: Considered “Topsy-Turvy” for Opal? I’ve seen it, and think it’s really wonderful, though I don’t have it (yet) on DVD. It is three hours long, which is a long haul even for an engrossed kid. It also has the operetta stuff within the outside story, which is conceptually complex; but then Opal deals handily with what I can only call “post-modern” children’s books and cartoons, some with remarkably complex narratives.

    I’ll consult with Elizabeth.

  3. H. R. Freckenhorst Says:

    It also includes the Gilberts’ unexplained sexual difficulties and Sullivan’s cavorting with bare-breasted prostitutes in Paris and his mistress’s intention of having an abortion, as well as drug use and alcoholism among the actors.

    I think it’s a brilliant movie, but perhaps a little strong for a six year old. I’d hold off till she was at least ten.

  4. arnold zwicky Says:

    To “H. R. Freckenhorst”: Hmm, I seem to have forgotten those parts of the outer story, but, yes, that’s a lot for a 6-year-old.

  5. arnold zwicky Says:

    My old friend The Beeb writes:

    … in Chapter X of The House at Pooh Corner, Eeyore attempts to write a poem of farewell to Christopher Robin – he calls it “POEM” – that includes this digression:

    (I haven’t got a rhyme for that
    “is” in the second line yet.
    (Now I haven’t got a rhyme for
    bother. Bother.)

    Those two bothers will have
    to rhyme with each other.

  6. IrrationalPoint Says:

    Re Opal: Have you considered the “Classical Kids” series? They’re CDs, not films, so may not exactly suit your purpose, but I think I had them when I was about 6, and they turned me into a true music junkie (I don’t recall worrying about re-makes at the time, so maybe they’ll work for that worry in a roundabout way). “Mr Bach Comes to Call” was my favourite, and it has a nice section in which Bach and his many musician children rework “Pop Goes The Weasel”.

    Re Bother/bugger. “Bugger” is much milder in UK-English than it is in US English, although it’s still not for polite company. Certainly no stronger than “fuck”, but for some speakers it might be as mild as “screw”.



  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    To IrrationalPoint: Opal gets a lot of music, of all sorts. I’ll see if the “Classical Kids” CDs have come by her.

    I was aware that bugger is much milder (now) in the U.K. than in the U.S. But it’s still not fit for “polite company”, and probably would have been utterly scandalous back in 1885.

  8. Neal Goldfarb Says:

    @AZ: “her first adult stage production (that’s ‘stage production for adults [as opposed to children]‘, not ‘stage production with sexual content or taboo language’)”

    It’s interesting how the latter sense of modifier “adult” is preempting the more traditional sense, at least in the context of entertainment. Or should that be “has preempted”?

    There is of course a term of art that avoids this ambiguity: “grown-up.” However, that’s pretty much limited to contexts where a distinction is being drawn between adults and children, and it wouldn’t work for, e.g., “adult community” (meaning a place where old people go to live).

  9. J. Levin Says:

    “Though ‘bother it’ I may occasionally say – I never use a big, big D!” (from memory).

    I have had the Idle/Miller “Mikado” and seen it once or twice (and stopped it to copy down the lyrics of “I have a little list”. I don’t remember the “bugger”, though it probably made me laugh.

    I would tend not to believe that the intention was to “de-euphemize” the standard text, though, unless they also reverted from “painted with vigour” to “blacked like a nigger”. I think I would have remembered that.

  10. arnold zwicky Says:

    To Joel Levin: So nice to have the scores at hand (from serving as a stage flunky for the Princeton Savoyards fifty years ago, while my roommate did the patter-song parts, including Captain Corcoran in Pinafore). To back up your memory, from Act I, No. 4:

    Bad language or abuse,
    I never, never use,
    Whatever the emergency;

    Though “bother it” I may
    Occasionally say,
    I never use a big, big D–

    [chorus of sailors] What, never?
    [captain] No, never!

    [chorus of sailors] What, never?
    [captain] Hardly ever!
    [choris of sailors] Hardly ever swears a big, big D–!

  11. Lyrics with variable slots « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] with variable slots By arnold zwicky Two sources for this posting: my recent piece on this blog on, among other things, The Mikado; and my recent piece on Language Log (“Back […]

  12. Robert Says:

    I too was curious about what Miller did about “blacked like a nigger”; if they’re going to claim that bugger is what Gilbert “meant” by bother, then they ought to be prepared to stand by what Gilbert actually wrote.. Topsy-Turvy got around the problem by skipping the verse.

  13. Grownup performances for children « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] up on the splendid response my grand-daughter Opal had to a performance of the Mikado (see here), her mother and I have been surveying other possibilities in the line of grownup performances […]

  14. Burlesques, parodies, playful allusions « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Oh X the flowers of spring (link): The Mikado: the people, setting, and language in Doyly Carte productions aren’t authentically […]

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