Bullshit etymology

A few days ago I posted on “Mickey Mouse in the old days”, ending with a clearly homophobic strip from 1931 involving a slur cream-puff inhaler, which I couldn’t find in slang sources, but speculated it involved cream-puff  ‘weaking, male homosexual’ and inhaler suggesting sucker. I then added a recent revision of the strip, in which cream-puff inhaler has become cake-eater, and  I wondered about cake-eater.

Commenter “rubberchickencircuit” then asserted:

In 1920s slang, a cream-puff inhaler was a straight guy who slummed with gay guys, which Mickey is accusing Kat Nipp of being. (Kat Nipp is a villain whom Mickey hadn’t met at this point in the story—he guessed the gay guy might be him.)

In the rewrite, a cake-eater was a guy who flirted with unattractive women so that he could mooch money or food (i. e. cake) off of them. Also makes sense in context. [In the revision, the gay guy has become a (not very attractive) girl.]

Suspicious of these claims, I asked for a source for them, but haven’t gotten an answer. At the same time, I told the story to ADS-L and asked there for information on the slang. An answer (on the 25th) from Jon Lighter, editor of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), began:

Sounds like BS to me.

Now for some details.

In the original, Mickey confronts a guy with a big neckbow and limp wrists and a lisp:

I’m justh th’ baker’s boy who bringth goodieth to Mr. “Nipp!”

In the revision, Mickey confronts a girl (so the neckbow and the wrist gesture are appropriate), without a lisp:

I’m just the baker’s girl who brings goodies to “Mr. Nipp!”

The OED has three figurative or transferred senses for the creampuff of the original (no source seems to have heard of creampuff-inhaler):

(a) see quot. 1919 [a shell-burst, WWI];  (b) something of small consequence;  (c) an effeminate person.

ADS-Lers supplies other senses of creampuff — (in real estate) ‘a house in good condition, on which the buyer will need to make few repairs’ (from Larry Horn), and (in HDAS) ‘a used car in splendid condition’ — but these are almost certainly irrelevant to the use in the original cartoon.

Then Garson O’Toole provided “an example illustrating the transformative effects of eating cream puffs” in the early years of the 20th century:

I can think of nothing more effective than a generation or so on Fifth Avenue, where, according to your old night-hawk friend, Boston Bill, “they eat cream puffs all day long, and drink wine all night”-truly a scathing denunciation of the ultra-rich. It may have been that such enervating luxuries have transformed the western jaw into the eastern chin (I would mark Algernon O’Houlihan as “Exhibit A”), and it may have been this same damnable cream-puff vice that has evolved our tall, gaunt, angular, thin-bellied forebears into the short, cylindrical, roly-poly type of the cities. (The Invaders: A Story of the “Hole-in-the-wall” Country  by John Lloyd [Jacque Lloyd Morgan], p. 227, R.F. Fenno & Co., New York, ca. 1910; link here)

This provides a ‘weakling, sybarite’ sense that can serve as the bridge to the ‘effeminate person’ sense noted in the OED.

On to cake-eater. This one’s in OED2 as well:

U.S. slang a self-indulgent or effeminate man; a playboy.

1922   Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Okla.) 6 Jan. 10/4   He calls us ‘lounge lizards, tea drinkers, cake eaters and all that’.

Jon Lighter expanded on this in ADS-L:

A “cake-eater” was a “softy” of a sort easily imagined as attending afternoon teas, a common university activity of the era. Moreover, red-blooded he-men were expected to eat muscle-building steaks and fresh-caught trout, not sweet, debilitating cakes and pastries. [pastries like creampuffs?]

I doubt that a child reading the revised strip from 2010 could be expected to appreciate much of this; presumably, kids would read it as simply saying that Kat Nipp likes the cakes that the baker’s girl supplies. So Mickey’s motivation for attacking the girl physically is not at all clear; but there’s a lot of floating aggression in comic strips, especially the older ones.

Back to rubberchickencircuit and his slang etymologies, which now seem entirely fanciful — bullshit stories that sound plausible (and colorful) to their inventor and so can be passed on to others as fact. As I’ve remarked on other occasions in talking about the etymologies of words and phrases, people prefer a good story (especially a complex one with specific details) to the truth. (Not that we have any evidence about what the Disney cartoonists had in mind in 1931.)


6 Responses to “Bullshit etymology”

  1. Dennis Preston Says:

    Jon Lighter, who knows more than anybody else on the planet about US slang, has got one thing wrong in his commentary: He-men do not eat trout (or fish for them either). Bass, catfish, walleye, etc…. Not trout.

  2. Lane Says:

    Sir Mix-A-Lot’s song “Cake Boy” might be instructive:


    It’s an effeminate but straight man, who can dance, “likes to skip rocks on lakes”, carries a “backpack full of juice”, and so on.

  3. nick Says:

    Might this be related to BrEng ‘puff’ / ‘poof’, for which the OED has ‘Origin uncertain’ and cites examples from the early C19?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Related how? The BrE slur seems to go back to the 16th century, but what would connect it, rather than any other homophobic slur, to the items in my posting?

      It’s not enough to make a semantic connection — homophobic slurs are many, and everywhere — or a phonological connection. What’s needed is the two together, *and* the sociocultural history that connects them.

      • nick Says:

        Ah sorry, I phrased it badly and too briefly! I wasn’t suggesting that there’s necessarily a direct link, but rather that the BrE term draws on the similar sense of ‘puff’ as ‘something of small consequence’, but then gets to the sense of ‘an effeminate person’ via a different, more direct, route, so that it’s not conveying that someone is sybaritic, but just a weakling, a person ‘of small consequence’.

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