My breakfast this morning — my breakfasts are often hearty — was Cajun meatballs with sauteed vegetables (prominently, okra) and rice. Quite pleasant, but I can’t help thinking that meatballs are intrinsically funny. Maybe it’s the balls thing, or maybe the assortment of deprecatory uses of meatball(s), or maybe just the appearance of four sizable stolid globes of ground meat on a plate. (I would blame the kid song “On Top of Spaghetti” — see here — if I could, but it wasn’t written until well after my childhood.)

An arrangement of (as it happens, Italian) meatballs on a platter, looking much like an array of cannonballs:


Then I began wondering about the conventionalized phrase meatball surgery, which I remember from the American television show M*A*S*H and also from an overheard argument among my surgeons about how to handle the necrotizing fasciitis advancing on my right arm.

And now my meatball bulletin.

The foodstuff. Meatballs are cooked (by any of several methods) spheres of ground meat (beef, pork, lamb, buffalo, turkey, chicken, or I suppose ostrich, llama, or whatever else you might have available, or some mixture of these; and then there are fishballs and so-called vegetarian or meatless meatballs); mixed with non-meat ingredients; possibly coated before cooking; possibly moistened by sauteed vegetables, a gravy or other sauce — tomato sauce is classic in Italian cooking — or by cooking in a broth or soup; and possibly served on a starch, like some kind of pasta  — spaghetti is classic in Italian cooking — or mashed potatoes or what-have-you.

So long as you don’t have to grind the meat yourself or make gravies or sauces from scratch, meatball making is a pretty quick and easy operation: simple and unrefined home cooking. This fact will be important.

Some linguistic observations. Selections from Green’s Dictionary of Slang (the entries in Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of English Slang are very similar):

for the noun:

1 (US) a stupid person; thus a potential victim [possibly influenced by meathead, itself attested from 1929; first cite 1939)

2 (US) an Italian [from the stereotyped partiality of Italians for the dish; first cite 1950]

for the adjective (or noun used as modifier):

1 (US Und[erworld]) used of a criminal charge for a petty crime [from the smallness or commonness, thus unimportance, of the food; first cite 1944]

2 (US) stupid [from n.1; first cite 1965 (a meatball deal, then our meatball President]

Other material from OED3 (March 2001):

2. Baseball. An easily hit pitch. [first cite 1912)

4. slang (chiefly N. Amer.). An unintelligent, boring, or ineffectual person, esp. one with a muscular physique. Cf. earlier meathead n.

These are all deprecatory or at least diminishing. Some combination of these uses presumably lies behind the usage in the title of the 1979 movie Meatballs. From the Wikipedia site:

Meatballs is a 1979 Canadian comedy film directed by Ivan Reitman. It is noted for Bill Murray’s first film appearance in a starring role and for launching the directing career of Reitman whose later comedies included Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984), both starring Murray. The film also introduced child actor Chris Makepeace in the role of Rudy Gerner. It was followed by several sequels, of which only Meatballs III: Summer Job (1986) had any connection to the original.

Tripper Harrison (Murray) is the head counselor of a group of new counselors-in-training (CITs) at Camp North Star, a cut-rate summer camp.


Meatball surgery. To my surprise: as far as I can see, this expression doesn’t have a (sub)entry in OED3, Green, or Lighter. But from Wikipedia:

Battlefield medicine, also called field surgery and later combat casualty care, is the treatment of wounded combatants and non-combatants in or near an area of combat.

… The term “Meatball surgery” is a term used in battlefield medicine to refer to surgery that is meant to be performed rapidly to stabilize the patient as quickly as possible.

More extensively, on the MASH wiki:

Meatball Surgery is the term used to describe the type of surgery performed by the doctors at the MASH units. The emphasis was on performing an adequate job at high speed as opposed to refinement and meticulousness. Writing to his father in the pilot episode of the M*A*S*H TV series, Hawkeye describes the process thus: “At this particular mobile army hospital, we’re not concerned with the ultimate reconstruction of the patient. We only care about getting the kid out of here alive enough for someone else to put on the fine touches. We work fast and we’re not dainty, because a lot of these kids who can stand two hours on the table just can’t stand one second more. We try to play par surgery on this course. Par is a live patient.”

The themes stressed here are speed and lack of refinement. But any number of quick, homey food preparations could serve as the basis for a battlefield surgery metaphor. I suggest that meatballs were an especially good source of imagery, because they’re composed of ground meat, and battlefield surgery requires the doctors to work on their patients as if they were just packages of meat bits.

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