Noodling with formulaic language

Today is National Noodle Day. Yes, an event fabricated by people in the food indusry to showcase their products and sell them, on a date no doubt chosen only because it hadn’t already been claimed by any other food. But noodles are delicious, they’re multicultural, and they’re fun.

I celebrated the occasion at lunch with some porcini mushroom and truffle triangoli (stuffed ravioli, but triangular rather than square) from Trader Joe’s, with arrabiatta sauce (a spicy tomato sauce). Pasta in English food talk for Italian food, but  noodles in English food talk for Chinese (and other East Asian and Southeast Asian) food — so today they’re noodles to me. (I recommend a broadminded view on what counts as noodles.)

I also recommend that we adopt a symbolic figure for the occasion, something like the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Halloween pumpkins and witches, Pilgrims for Thanksgiving, the New Year baby, and so on. I suggest the Flying Spaghetti Monster, with his noodly appendages.

But first let’s get down to some recent noodling with formulaic expressions in the comics: One Big Happy (an idiom), Rhymes With Orange (a frequent collocation or an idiom, depending on who you read), and Mother Goose and Grimm (a proverb):

(#1) more fun than a barrel of monkeys

(#2) checkered past

(#3) beggars can’t be choosers

#1: more fun than a barrel of monkeys. The greatest challenge to comics understanding of these three, since neither the source expression nor any of its parts occurs in the strip, though a (literal) barrel of monkeys is depicted.

A dictionary entry:

be more fun than a barrel of monkeys: To be very fun and enjoyable. Primarily heard in UK. I always have a great time when Katie’s around — she’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys! (Farlex Dictionary of Idioms 2015 ) (link)

I don’t know the history of the idiom, but the sense development probably depends on two things: the image of monkeys as playful creatures (found throughout the word) and the development of the container and measure nouns barrel (container fill a barrel with wine, measure a barrel and a half of wine) into the quantificational noun barrel ‘lots of” in barrel of fun and then barrel of laughs (in the late 19th and early 20th century, and not in OED2):

noun barrel of fun: 1. a tremendous amount of fun. We have a barrel of fun at the zoo. 2, a person who is a lot of fun. Taylor is just a barrel of fun on dates. (McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, 2006)

A monkey-barrel bonus:


Barrel of Monkeys is a toy game released by Lakeside Toys in 1965. It was created by Leonard Marks and Milton Dinhofer in 1961, and in 1964, Herman Kesler partnered to sell it to Lakeside Toys. Lakeside Toys released it in 1965 and today it is produced by the Milton Bradley Company within the Hasbro corporation. Milton Bradley’s editions consist of a toy barrel in either blue, yellow, red, purple, orange, gray or green. The barrel contains 12 monkeys but can hold 24, their color usually corresponding to the barrel’s color. The instructions state, “Dump monkeys onto table. Pick up one monkey by an arm. Hook other arm through a second monkey’s arm. Continue making a chain. Your turn is over when a monkey is dropped.” In addition to these basic instructions, the barrel also contains instructions for playing alone or with two or more players.  (Wikipedia link)

In the cartoon we’ve got a literal barrel of monkeys — something that has probably occurred in the real world only during animal smuggling operations, if at all; certainly, zoos don’t ship monkeys in barrels. On the other hand, wine is regularly shipped in barrels, or casks. And then, the barrel mix-up.

#2: checkered past. Ruthie and Joe’s mother and grandmother talked about Brandi’s checkered past, an exoression Ruthie wasn’t familiar with, so she used what she could pull out of her experience, namely that the adjective checkered is used of clothes, and she takes /pæst/ to be the phonologically similar clothing noun/pænts/; everybody‘s seen checkered pants.

From NOAD2:

adj. checkered: having a pattern of alternating squares of different colors; marked by periods of varied fortune or discreditable incidents: his checkered past might hurt his electability.

An illustration of  the literal sense: 2017 men’s fashion in plaid / checks (I’m not recommending this, just reporting it):


The NOAD2 entry treats the checkered (roughly ‘alternating between good and bad’) of checkered past as just a metaphoric extension of the pattern adjective. Though checkered does modify some other nouns — in checkered career, for instance — it’s collocated with past at a very high frequency, so some dictionaries treat checkered past as an idiom.

#3: beggars can’t be choosers. A sentiment that has been frozen into a proverb. In Merriam-Webster Online’s generous formulation:

used to say that people who need something should be satisfied with what they get even if it is not exactly what they wanted

Less generously: if you accept charity, you have no say in what you get, but must take whatever the donor gives you.

This understanding is discernible to some extent in the form of the proverb, though beggars must be understood as applying to a much larger population of supplicants and charity recipients than literal beggars, and the infrequent noun choosers must be understood more narrowly than ‘those who choose (things)’.

In the cartoon, Grimm plays deliberately on the form of the proverb. Well, the artist, Mike Peters, sets things up elaborately for Grimm’s punch line by having the grocery-store bagger (with /æ/, rather than the /ɛ/ of beggar) suggest choosing paper rather than plastic.

Back in the real world, there are serious moral and social policy issues about how we treat recipients of charity. In general, the prevailing scheme is that beggars in fact can’t be choosers: in accepting aid, to some degree you give up your right to structure your own life, you cede rights to the donor.  There are counter-proposals, in particular something along the lines of a guaranteed minimum income, with few ior no strings. From Wikipedia:

Guaranteed minimum income (GMI), also called minimum income, is a system of social welfare provision that guarantees that all citizens or families have an income sufficient to live on, provided they meet certain conditions. Eligibility is typically determined by citizenship, a means test, and either availability for the labour market or a willingness to perform community services. The primary goal of a guaranteed minimum income is to reduce poverty. If citizenship is the only requirement, the system turns into a universal basic income.

Noodle time: playing around. Above, three cartoons that noodle around with formulaic expressions in English. From NOAD2:

verb noodle: [no object] informal improvise or play casually on a musical instrument: tapes of him noodling on his guitar

(The origin is uncertain.)

Noodle time: the foodstuff. From NOAD2:

noun noodle (usually noodles): a strip, ring, or tube [or, if we include Asian noodles, string] of pasta or a similar dough, typically made with egg and usually eaten with a sauce or in a soup.

My Noodle Day lunch today was based on:

(#6) Yummy lunch for Noodle Day

(Trader Giotto’s is an Italian-sounding play on Trader Joe’s. The actual Italian name would be Giuseppe, or some nickname based on it, like Giù.)

The pasta is in fact egg pasta, so I hereby declare it to be noodles, at least for the purposes of Noodle Day celebrations.

Noodle time: the Pastafarian holy day. I also propose that, in light of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendages and the Pastafarian colander headgear, Noodle Day should be declared the holy day of Pastafarianism. See my 7/31/11 posting “Critical thinking” for discussion of the FSM, deliciously drenched in all things noodle.

The FSM has received scant attention in the comics I regularly follow, but last year Jim Toomey’s Sherman’s Lagoon had a whole sequence featuring the FSM (but irreverently).

(Earlier posting on this blog on the strip on 5/28/16. The central characters of Sherman’s Lagoon are Sherman and Megan, a married couple of great white sharks in a tropical lagoon.)

Three FSM episodes of the strip:

(#7) 5/2/16

(#8) 5/3/16

(#9) 5/4/16

Have I mentioned the colander that sits on my kitchen counter?

5 Responses to “Noodling with formulaic language”

  1. Brian Ashurst Says:

    Sorry Arnold, it’s not the only international food day. Today is also International Porridge Day and I just had some at the Windmill restaurant here in Soledad!

    –Brian Ashurst

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh, spit! Those pushy porridge people are threatening the noble noodle!

      I suppose this was inevitable, given the enormous number of named foodstuffs vs. only 365 days in the year. I just checked on today, October 7th, and (probably through the machinations of Starbucks) it turns out to be National Frappe Day (referring to coffee drinks, not New England milkshakes), a holiday whose existence I wouldn’t have predicted. Checking on two other ethnic specialties, I see that November 9th is National Scrapple Day (celebrating “arguably the first pork food invented in America” [I’m going to let that just sit there while I giggle]) and that October 12th is National Gumbo Day (also Pumpkin Pie Day; at this time of the year Americans live in a great orange miasma of pumpkin and pumpkin spice).

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From David Broudy on Facebook:

    What about noodling as in catching fish by hand?

    My response:

    Not previously known to me, though there are several more slang verbs noodle, meaning ‘kiss and cuddle’, ‘trick’, ‘think, brainstorm’, (Austr.) ‘search for opals’. I just picked one that would fit into a posting on the cartoons.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Chris Waigl on Facebook:

    I sometimes use “noodle through” for selecting a set of input values (can be small, can be large) and then running some kind of computational process on them (by hand or computer).

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