Pearls POP

Alerted by Andy Sleeper, two recent Pearls Before Swine cartoons:



The Worrywarthog: a phrasal overlap portmanteau (POP): worrywart + warthog. The first is new on this blog; the second has come up in passing several times, but without an actual look at the animal.

The warthog. The skinny in brief, from Wikipedia:

The common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) is a wild member of the pig family (Suidae) found in grassland, savanna, and woodland in sub-Saharan Africa.


Although capable of fighting (males aggressively fight each other during mating season), the common warthog’s primary defense is to flee by means of fast sprinting. The common warthog’s main predators are humans, lions, leopards, crocodiles, wild dogs and hyenas. Cheetahs are also capable of catching warthogs of up to their own weight and raptors such as Verreaux’s eagle owls and martial eagles sometimes prey on piglets. However, if a female common warthog has any piglets, she will defend them very aggressively. On occasion, common warthogs have been observed charging and even wounding large predators. Common warthogs have also been observed allowing banded mongooses and vervet monkeys to groom them to remove ticks.

Oh yes, check out my posting of 10/16/13, with a section on the underground comic Wonder Wart-Hog (the Hog of Steel).

The worrywart. Very briefly, from NOAD2:

noun N. Amer. informal   a person who tends to dwell unduly on difficulty or troubles.

In much more detail, from Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words site, in a posting dated 2/14/15:

Q: From David Bagwell: At least in the deep South of the United States, somebody who worries unreasonably is called a worry-wort or worry-wart, an odd usage. I could not find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, at least with my eyes or a glass in my edition with the “Lord’s Prayer on a pinhead” font. Is it known in other parts of the world? It sounds old, and I’ll bet it goes back a long time. And is it wort or wart?

A: It’s been about a month since you asked this question, so I hope you’ve not been kept awake at night worrying about the origins and spelling of this curious expression. In case you have, I hasten to clear up the second part of your question by confirming that it’s always written wart, like the growth on the skin.

It was originally American and remains widely known there (not only in the deep South), though it has long since migrated to other parts of the world. It’s not particularly common in the UK but does turn up from time to time:

Instead of wandering about in a joyful, pregnant haze, I became an obsessive worry wart. I didn’t even dare buy baby clothes.
Daily Telegraph, 28 Apr. 2014

The origin, as so often with popular phrases, is a comic strip. In this case, it was the highly popular Out Our Way by J R Williams, which began life in 1922 and ran until 1977. In the early days it often featured a small-town family. One of the boys, aged about eight, was nicknamed Worry Wart by his elder brother. In one early frame, the boy is in bed alongside an open window, his bedclothes and face blackened with soot from nearby factory chimneys. He gets an unsympathetic reaction from his brother:

So somebody told you it was good fer you t’sleep with a winder open, hah? Well answer me this, Worry Wart, without no sarcasticism — does this somebody live in a shop neighborhood?
Out Our Way, by J R Williams, in the Canton Daily News (Canton, Ohio), 3 Apr. 1929

The phrase came into the language at around this time and became quite popular in the 1930s because Williams produced many gently humorous cartoons featuring Worry Wart.

What’s intriguing about its early history is that it didn’t mean what it does now — somebody who constantly worries about everything and anything. Instead it took its sense from the cartoon — a child who annoys everyone through being a pest or nuisance. [AZ: this sense of <em>worry</em> is closely related to the usage of the verb when we say that a dog worries a bone,] An early reference is a story from April 1930 in a Texan newspaper, the Quanah Tribune

Chief: “Elmo Dansby (the school worry wart) informed us that he was going to get him a girl and have a big time.” He doesn’t sound like a worrier.

An odd enquiry a little later in the decade (presumably a humorous squib and not a genuine question) shows the meaning well:

Dear Pat and Mike: I am a young squirt in the Sophomore class. I have many bad habits such as trying to act smart, pestering the teachers, am the biggest worry wart in school and think I am very cute. Tell me a way to overcome these bad habits. — Worry Wart.

Dear Worry Wart: When you find out what people think of you, you will automatically drop them.
Lockhart Post-Register (Texas), 8 Nov. 1934

This meaning was still the usual one when the phrase began to appear in Australia after the Second World War, but by the 1950s it was being used there in the way we do now. It took some years more for the meaning to change over completely in the US. By the time it reached us here in the UK it had only the current sense.

So where does it come from? There has long been a belief that warts are caused by worry and stress, which presumably accounts for the current meaning. And the original sense may have been provoked through the idea that warts are often an itchy nuisance. They invite one to scratch and worry at them, which only makes things worse. The idea was expressed in this falsely worry-making admonitory ditty:

Don’t worry a wart,
Or a thing of that sort,
You’re taking a terrible chance sir;
For often they grow,
As doctors all know,
Into a formidable cancer.
Sandusky Star Journal (Ohio), 26 Feb. 1923.

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