peanut(s), penis, and Cracker Jack

In a posting three days ago on matters having to do with a Pop-Tart commercial on tv, I reported that at first I heard the peanut in peanut butter as penis. Now a Facebook poster adds his own experience, which had to do with the Cracker Jack slogan (for many years), “Candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize”, which as a kid he heard as hawking “penis and a prize”; he took that as an early indicator that he was gay. And now I discover that there’s a rich vein of joking (much of it sophomoric) exploiting the phonetic similarity of peanuts and penis (penis brittle and, yes, penis butter), plus considerable anxiety over the word peanuts from speakers of languages that disfavor consonant clusters (like /ts/).

Two topics here: the phonetic similarity of peanut(s) and penis; and some reflections on Cracker Jack, both the snack and its name.

Peanut(s) and penis. These words are two-syllable words accented on the first syllable, which is /pi/, and they have a second syllable with the onset /n/. They differ in what comes after the /n/. And here I have to say some words about the unaccented “neutral” vowels of English, in particular American English. These are generally unrounded, lax, and non-low, and they vary otherwise from high to mid and from front to central, embracing at least the variants [ɪ] (high front), [ɨ] (high central), and [ǝ] (mid central). Some speakers primarily have one or the other of these vowels, and some distribute the variants according to the quality of the following consonant.

But quite a few speakers distinguish between a high neutral vowel (usually transcribed /ɪ/) and a central neutral vowel (transcribed /ǝ/). These are phonemically distinct; there are minimal pairs (roses with /ɪ/, Rosa’s with /ǝ/) and many near-minimal pairs. As it happens, I have this distinction myself, and it appears that whoever did the transcriptions for NOAD2 had it as well. So for 2-neutral-V speakers, the slogan “Nobody messes with Texas” doesn’t quite work, since for these speakers

messes is /ˈmɛsɪz/ while Texas is /ˈtɛksǝs/

And similarly for

penis /ˈpinɪs/ vs. peanut(s) /ˈpinǝt(s)/

Despite all this, peanut(s) and penis are undoubtedly phonetically similar for everyone, are easily confused in perception, and can count as equivalent for the purposes of language play (imperfect puns are very common; see Zwicky & Zwicky (1986), viewable here, on the topic).

Cracker Jack. From Wikipedia:

Cracker Jack is an American brand of snack consisting of molasses-flavored caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts, well known for being packaged with a prize of trivial value inside. The Cracker Jack name was registered in 1896. The slogan “The More You Eat The More You Want” was also registered that year. Some food historians consider it the first junk food. Cracker Jack is famous for its connection to baseball lore. The Cracker Jack brand has been owned and marketed by Frito-Lay since 1997.

… Cracker Jack includes a small “mystery” novelty item referred to as a “Toy Surprise” in each box. The tagline for Cracker Jack was originally “Candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize” but has since become “Caramel coated popcorn & peanuts” under Frito-Lay.

The package, from the classic period under Borden Foods:


Sweet, salty, and crunchy. Actually, too sweet for my taste. But millions love the stuff.

The surprise toy is a cheesy gimmick; the little plastic trinkets are a grave disappointment if you were hoping for an actual toy, but some people collect the things avidly:


Some history, with an explanation of the name (from the Wikipedia article):

Frederick William Rueckheim — a German immigrant known informally as “Fritz”— sold popcorn at 113 Fourth Avenue, now known as Federal Street, in Chicago beginning in 1871… In 1873, Fritz bought out his partner, Brinkmeyer, and brought his brother Louis Rueckheim over from Germany to join in his venture, forming the company F.W. Rueckheim & Bro…

In 1896, the first lot of Cracker Jack was produced, the same year the name was registered. It was named by an enthusiastic sampler who remarked: “That’s a crackerjack!” (a colloquialism meaning “of excellent quality”).

In 1899, Henry Gottlieb Eckstein developed the “waxed sealed package” for freshness, known then as the “Eckstein Triple Proof Package”, a dust-, germ-, and moisture-proof paper package. In 1902, the company was reorganized as Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”, a song written by lyricist Jack Norworth and composer Albert Von Tilzer, gave Cracker Jack free publicity when it was released in 1908 with the line: “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack!”…

Mascots Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo [see #1] were introduced as early as 1916 and registered as a trademark in 1919.  Sailor Jack was modeled after Robert Rueckheim, nephew of Frederick and Louis Rueckheim…  The sailor boy image acquired such meaning for the founder of Cracker Jack that he had it carved on his tombstone… Sailor Jack’s dog Bingo was based on a real-life dog named Russell, a stray adopted in 1917 by Henry Eckstein, who demanded that the dog be used on the packaging.

crackerjack. OED2 has the colloquial (and originally U.S.) noun (and adjective) crackerjack (with variant crackajack) ‘something that is exceptionally fine or splendid… a person who is exceptionally skilful or expert’ from 1895 as a noun (it will almost surely turn out to be older than that) and from 1910 as an adjective (that is, a noun used as an attributive, as in a crackerjack salesman).

The etymology the OED suggests is ‘a fanciful formation upon crack v. or cracker n.’, but that probably can be improved on by considering the adjective crack, as in a crack shot. OED2 has this as colloquial or slang, in the meaning ‘pre-eminent, superexcellent, first-class’, with a first cite in 1793. Etymologically, it’s crack n. 16, used attributively, and that noun is glossed

That which is the subject of boast or eulogy; that which is ‘cracked up’; a horse, player, ship, regiment, etc. of superior excellence

with a first cite of 1637.

The jack of (acrackerjack could well be the jack or Jack used in various ways for generic reference to a man (or, by extension, a person, or even a thing).



2 Responses to “peanut(s), penis, and Cracker Jack”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From a poster on Facebook:

    A common snack in Georgia is boiled peanuts, which in certain drawls sounds like “bald penis”

  2. Paul Foster Says:

    (1) I, too, have the distinction between those two vowels. I was delighted to find myself ‘vindicated’ in using it when I picked up a Chambers dictionary back in the early 1980s for use in solving British crosswords. I’m surprised it doesn’t have broader recognition outside of linguistic circles.

    (2) I should also have remembered the sailor in regards to my attraction.

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