freak shows

Today’s Zippy reflects on a bit of culture — a fascination with deformed and otherwise outrageous human beings — name-checks Lady Gaga, Anderson Cooper, and (indirectly) the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington — and exploits the ambiguity of the compound freak show:

(#1) At the menagerie / side show

From NOAD2 on the noun freak show:

a sideshow at a fair, featuring abnormally developed people or animals; an unusual or grotesque event viewed for pleasure, especially when in bad taste.

In the literal freak show in the cartoon, the exhibits include two with pinheads (the real-world freaks who were the models for the cartoon character Zippy; see previous postings here on the microcephalic Schlitzie), plus Sealo — another real-world freak. From Wikipedia:


Stanislaus Berent (November 24, 1901 – 1980) was an American freak who performed at many freak shows, including the World Circus Sideshow in 1941 under the stage name of Sealo the Seal Boy (often stylized to just Sealo). He was known for his seal-like arms, which were caused by a congenital medical condition known as phocomelia.

… He had no arms; his hands grew from his shoulders.

Sealo started off his career as a newspaper seller, then was discovered by freak scouters. He was a regular feature at Coney Island’s freak show from circa 1920 to 1970 and was exaggerated as a human with a seal body on some promotional sideshow posters.

On Berent’s condition (and its name), from Wikipedia:

Phocomelia is a condition that involves malformations of the arms and legs [Berent’s legs were very weak]. Although many factors can cause phocomelia, the prominent roots come from the use of the drug thalidomide and from genetic inheritance. Occurrence in an individual results in various abnormalities to the face, limbs, ears, nose, vessels and many other underdevelopments. Although operations may improve some abnormalities, many are not surgically treatable due to the lack of nerves and other related structures.

The term is from Ancient Greek φώκη phōkē, “seal (animal)” + -o– interfix + μέλος melos, “limb” + English suffix –ia) is an extremely rare congenital disorder involving malformation of the limbs (dysmelia). Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire coined the term in 1836.

On the Greek ‘seal’ stem, note Phoca, the genus of earless seals (the Pacific harbor seal, the official seal of the state of California, is in this genus), and the French phoque ‘seal’ (as in the idiom pédé comme une phoque ‘gay as a goose’ (lit. ‘gay as a seal’); see this posting ).

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