The Pogo files

One cartoonist who reveled in language but has been largely neglected in my postings on linguistics in the comics is Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo. The problem is that good examples of Pogo material are hard to find on the net. But here are a few high points: the quote “We have met the enemy and he is us”; notes on the Okefenokee swamp dialect in Pogo; and the inspired nonsense of Kelly’s song parodies.

1. We have met the enemy. From the I Go Pogo site:

Walt Kelly first used the quote “We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us” on a poster for Earth Day in 1970. The poster is shown above. In 1971, he did a two panel version with Pogo and Porky in a trash filled swamp.

This is the only example I know of with a balloon, indicating Pogo responding to Porky with “YEP, SON, WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.” In 1972, it was the title of a book, Pogo: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us.

Mark Liberman looked at the background of this material on Language Log in 2009.

On the pronouns in this quote: there are three choices involved, how to manage reference back to the enemy, how to distribute reference to the enemy and us between the subject and predicative, and what pronoun form to use in the predicative. On the first choice: either repeat the enemy or use a pronoun — singular he or it or formally plural they. Liberman:

Linguistically speaking, this all started in 1813,  when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry famously wrote to General William Henry Harrison reporting a victory in the Battle of Lake Erie:

We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.

The quotation is often amended to “… and he is ours”, perhaps due to prescriptive nervousness about “singular they”.

Kelly echoed Perry in the he version, though all four choices would have been possible:

and the enemy is us / and he is us / and it is us / and they are us

(The choice of they here would not necessarily be “singular they“, since enemy can be used as an intrinsically plural noun — The enemy are at the gate — as well as as a singular — The enemy is at the gate. There’s similar variation in a number of other nouns, for instance staff. In any case, that means that and the enemy are us is yet another possibility, though not an especially good one.)

So far we (and Kelly) are echoing Perry in having the subject in the second coordinate clause refer to the enemy. But the predicative is another possibility:

and we are the enemy / and we are him / and we are it / and we are them

Many speakers strongly disprefer accented it, so that’s the least satisfactory choice. But all these choices treat us as the topic of the discourse, whereas the discourse is about the enemy, so none of them are really satisfying.

Finally, going back to enemy-referring subjects, there’s the issue of case choice for the predicative. Here Kelly opts for an accusative, rather than a nominative, as in:

and the enemy is/are we / and he is we / and it is we / and they are we

Good for him; nominative predicative 1pl is strikingly bizarre, even for people who insist on things like It is I. In general, accusative predicative pronouns are standard, with small islands of nominative use by people who have been taught that these usages are “correct”. (A topic for another posting, but this is the broad generalization.)

The upshot is that Kelly’s choice, and he is us, is an excellent one for the second conjunct, with only and they are us as a serious competitor.

2. Pogolect. From Wikipedia:

The strip was notable for its distinctive and whimsical use of language. Kelly, a native northeasterner, had a sharply perceptive ear for language and used it to great humorous effect. The predominant vernacular in Pogo, sometimes referred to as “swamp-speak,” is essentially a rural southern U.S. dialect laced with nonstop malapropisms, fractured grammar, “creative” spelling and mangled polysyllables such as “incredibobble” and “hysteriwockle,” plus invented words such as the exasperated exclamations “Bazz Fazz!,” “Rowrbazzle!” and “Moomph!” The resulting dialect is difficult to characterize, but the following fragment of dialogue (excerpted from a 1949 strip reproduced in the collection Pogo, published by Post-Hall Syndicate in 1951) may convey the general flavor:

Pogo has been engaged in his favorite pastime, fishing in the swamp from a flat-bottomed boat, and has hooked a small catfish. “Ha!” he exclaims, “A small fry!” At this point Hoss-Head the Champeen Catfish, bigger than Pogo himself, rears out of the swamp and the following dialogue ensues:

Hoss-Head [with fins on hips and an angry scowl]: Chonk back that catfish chile, Pogo, afore I whops you!

Pogo: Yassuree, Champeen Hoss-Head, yassuh yassuh yassuh yassuh yassuh… [tosses baby fish back in water]

Pogo [walks away, muttering discontentedly]: Things gettin’ so humane ’round this swamp, us folks will have to take up eatin’ MUD TURKLES!

Churchy (a turtle) [eavesdropping from behind a tree with Howland Owl]: Horroars! A cannibobble! [passes out]

Howland [holding the unconscious Churchy]: You say you gone eat mud turkles! Ol’ Churchy is done overcame!

Pogo: It was a finger of speech—I apologize! Why, I LOVES yo’, Churchy LaFemme!

Churchy [suddenly recovered from his swoon]: With pot licker an’ black-eye peas, you loves me, sir—HA! Us is through, Pogo!

3. Inspired nonsense. Again from the Wikipedia entry:

Kelly was an accomplished poet, and frequently added pages of original comic verse to his Pogo reprint books, complete with charming cartoon illustrations. The odd song parody or nonsense poem would also appear in the newspaper strip on occasion. In 1956, Kelly published Songs of the Pogo, an illustrated collection of his original songs, with lyrics by Kelly and music by Kelly and Norman Monath. The tunes were also issued on a vinyl LP, with Kelly himself contributing to the vocals. [The album is available as a CD or mp3 download.]

Traditional Christmas carols were a regular feature of Kelly’s holiday strips as well—particularly Deck the Halls. They are enthusiastically performed by the swamp’s rotating “Okefenokee Glee and Perloo Union” Choir, (perloo is a pilaf-based Cajun stew, similar to jambalaya), although in their childish innocence the chorus typically mangles the lyrics. (Churchy once sang a version of Good King Wenceslas that went: “Good King Sauerkraut look out / On his feets uneven / Beware the snoo lay ’round about / All kerchoo achievin’…”)

The version of “Deck Us All” from Songs of the Pogo:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!
Don’t we know archaic barrel
Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!

(Kelly wrote several more versions, but this is the one I can’t get out of my head. A reference to it on this blog, here.)

There’s much, much more.

5 Responses to “The Pogo files”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    For Pogo’s take on the old “hum a few bars and I’ll fake it” joke see my Web page at

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    *Splendid* recording of “Deck Us All With Boston Charlie” by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross on the Jingle Bell Swing collection (1999).

  3. Knowing « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a comment on my recent Pogo posting, Bob Richmond gave a link to a posting of his (“Hum a few bars and I’ll fake it”) on the joke […]

  4. Robert Dale Says:

    I have heard some university English Professors say that Walt Kelly was the greatest satirist of the twentieth century. There should be an archive of his works before they are lost beyond recovery.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      According to Wikipedia, there are ongoing projects to reprint all of the comic strips and (separately) all of the comic books that preceded the newspaper strips. Amazing stuff, and so much of it.

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