I was moved yesterday to wonder about the whoopee cushion, its history, and the various names for it. In particular, I mused that there would be no good way to predict what the thing is called in English, given a description of it; fart cushion would be the obvious candidate.
A whoopee cushion, also known as a poo-poo cushion and Razzberry Cushion, is a practical joke device, used in a form of flatulence humor, which produces a noise resembling a raspberry or human flatulence. It is made from two sheets of rubber that are glued together at the edges. There is a small opening with a flap at one end for air to enter and leave the cushion.
To use it, one must first inflate it with air, then place it on a chair or squeeze it. Some whoopee cushions can be self-inflating. If placed on a chair, an unsuspecting victim will sit on the whoopee cushion, forcing the air out of the opening, which causes the flap to vibrate and create a loud, flatulence-like sound.
The Roman Emperor Elagabalus [aka Heliogabalus] was known to employ a prototype of whoopee cushions at dinner parties, although the modern version was re-invented in the 1920s by the JEM Rubber Co. of Toronto, Canada, by employees who were experimenting with scrap sheets of rubber. The owner of the company approached Samuel Sorenson Adams, the inventor of numerous practical jokes [like the joy buzzer, Cachoo sneezing powder, the snake nut can, and the dribble glass] and owner of S.S. Adams Co., with the newly invented item. Adams said that the item was “too vulgar” and would never sell. JEM Rubber offered the idea to the Johnson Smith Company which sold it with great success. S.S. Adams Co. later released its own version, but called it the “Razzberry Cushion.”
Leads to follow up: the word whoopee; the word raspberry / razzberry; the compound Bronx cheer; and then the clipping razz.
whoopee. From NOAD2:
whoopee informal exclam. expressing wild excitement or joy.
noun wild revelry: hours of parades and whoopee.
• dated a wild party.
PHRASES make whoopee 1 celebrate wildly. 2 have sexual intercourse.
So whoopee cushion suggests the wild excitement or joy that the item affords to perpetrators. (By the way, the etymology of exclamations is notoriously difficult to track. How to tell who was the first to shout whoopee!?)
raspberry / razzberry and Bronx cheer. The histories here are fascinating. From Wikipedia (using reliable sources):
Blowing a raspberry, strawberry or making a Bronx cheer is to make a noise signifying derision, real or feigned. It is made by placing the tongue between the lips and blowing to produce a sound similar to flatulence. In the terminology of phonetics, this sound can be described as an unvoiced linguolabial trill [r̼̊]. It is never used in human language phonemically (e.g., to be used as a building block of words), but the sound is widely used across human cultures.
The nomenclature varies by country. In the United States, Bronx cheer is sometimes used; otherwise, in the U.S. and in other English-speaking countries, it is known as a raspberry, rasp, or razz – the origin of which is an instance of [Cockney] rhyming slang, in which the non-rhyming part of a rhyming phrase is used as a synonym. In this case, “raspberry tart” rhymes with “fart”. It was first recorded in 1890.
… The term “Bronx cheer” is used sarcastically because it is not a cheer; it is used to show disapproval. The term originated as a reference to the sound made by some spectators in Yankee Stadium, located in the Bronx
The verb razz. From NOAD2, I learn (to my surprise) that the verb is modern:
razz informal verb [with obj.] tease (someone) playfully.
noun another term for raspberry [‘derisive sound’].
ORIGIN early 20th cent.: [clipping] from informal razzberry, alteration of raspberry.