Two parrots and a pear tree

On Pinterest recently, a board devoted to Bizarro cartoons, including a fair number relevant to this blog but not previously posted here — from which, the three below (all the work of Dan Piraro alone, without Wayno’s collaboration). Two are about parrots and crackers (the first is also an instance of the Psychiatrist cartoon meme); the third offers a groaner pun on a sexual idiom previously discussed on this blog. (I’ll start with a digression on the most common way parrots figure in cartoons, as adjuncts to pirates.)

Digression: parrots and their pirates. An illustration, from my 9/1719 posting “The amazing talking pirate”:


(#1) PirateTalk + ParrotTalk, with a cartoon reversal of roles

A classic image:


(#2) The Hostage (1911), illustration by N.C. Wyeth for Stevenson’s Treasure Island: Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver with his parrot

From he website Atlas Obscura, “The Surprising Truth About Pirates and Parrots” by Dan Nosowitz on 1/19/15:

Ever since Long John Silver clomped around on a wooden leg with a parrot on his shoulder, the literary and pop-culture conception of pirates has involved the parrot. But at this point, fact is very hard to separate from fiction. What, exactly, about a classic pirate Halloween costume … is actually real? Is any of it real?

“The parrot trope is almost certainly grounded in reality,” says Colin Woodard, author of The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down. Long John Silver, the star of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, was the first major fictional pirate character to walk around with a pet parrot, but this, according to Woodard and other experts in the field of classic piracy I spoke to, was based on real truths. And the reasons why the parrot became associated with pirates actually give us a pretty good glimpse at the real, true-life existence of a pirate during the Golden Age of Piracy.

… The Golden Age of Piracy, a period lasting from, in the broadest sense, the mid-1600s through around 1730, encompassed a few different major geopolitical and economic movements that created a space for pirates.

… pirates, depending as they did on robbing ships, mostly had to go where the ships were. They followed trade routes, which means they ended up in specific places; you didn’t see pirates flocking to deep South America or anywhere in the Pacific Ocean. They stayed with the ships, and ended up largely in the Caribbean, West Africa, and the Indian Ocean’s coasts.

On long trips, whether conducted legally or illegally, pets were desired but would need careful vetting. These long voyages, remember, could last weeks or months, and mostly, they were incredibly boring and uncomfortable. A companion animal could help ease the way. What kind?

… pirates were traveling to exotic lands, had quite a bit of free time, had disposable income, and thus had no particular reason to restrict themselves to ordinary European pets like cats and dogs. Monkeys were not uncommon, and the concept of a pet monkey made its way into fiction as well — Captain Barbossa, in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, has one. But a parrot was more sensible. They don’t eat much, compared to a dog or a monkey, and what they do eat (seeds, fruits, nuts) can be easily stored on board. They’re colorful, and intelligent, and funny, and for a pirate (or a legal sailor) wanting to show off in port, a parrot would do nicely.

I’m doing parrots and their pirates first (and parrots and their crackers afterwards), in part because the pirate artistic convention is so common, in cartoons as elsewhere; and in part because the pirate artistic convention turns out to be grounded in fact — while the cracker artistic convention (“Polly Wanna Cracker”) is something of a factual conundrum.

Parrots and their crackers. The two Bizarro cartoons, on the theme Is That All There Is?:


(#3) From 3/16/10, the parrot in psychotherapy, hoping to get beyond crackers


(#4) From 12/29/10, the parrot wants to check out the alternatives

First, a note on the name Polly for a parrot, to get some feel for dates and places. From OED3 (Sept. 2006):

noun Polly: A parrot. Chiefly as a conventional proper or pet name. Cf. Poll n.3 [1st cite 1826; all five of the OED‘s cites are from British sources, though it’s clear that the parrot name was used by Americans in the 19th century (see discussion below)]

noun Poll-3: A conventional proper or pet name for a parrot. Hence: a parrot. [1st cite 1600 Ben Jonson Every Man out of his Humor; other cites through 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, initially almost entirely from British sources]

Then from the A Way with Words site, “Polly Wanna Cracker?”, posted by Grant Barrett on 2/28/09:

A man who owns a parrot says that when people see his bird, they invariably ask the question “Polly wanna cracker?” He wonders about the origin of that psittacine phrase, meaning parrot-like. One of the earliest uses of the phrase so far found is this fake advertisement from the mock newspaper the Bunkum Flag-Staff and Independent Echo published in 1849 in The Knickerbocker magazine. It starts, “For sale, a Poll Parrot, cheap. He says a remarkable variety of words and phrases, cries, ‘Fire! fire!; and ‘You rascal!’ and ‘Polly want a cracker,’ and would not be parted with, but having been brought up with a sea-captain he is profane and swears too much.” Here is a cartoon from The John-Donkey, July 29, 1848, p. 47, via Proquest American Periodical Series. The John-Donkey was a short-lived humorous and satirical magazine edited by Thomas Dunn English.


(#5) A pun on cracker: the boy is threatening to crack the parrot’s head

Grant’s examples are from American sources, and that’s a good thing, because cracker for a kind of biscuit was originally an American usage, and still is primarily American; OED2 has the sense ‘a thin hard biscuit’ as originally (1st cite 1739) and still chiefly U.S.

But do (or did) parrots eat crackers (in this sense)? They mostly eat seeds, nuts, and fruits, though some will eat (unsalted) crackers if these are offered to them. I haven’t, however, seen any reports of parrots seeking them out.

This is a sticking-point for accounts of the development of the parrot+cracker artistic convention. At the moment, it seems to come down to two speculations (both can be found on the net): a speculation about feeding parrots on board 19th-century American vessels with crackers (stored there for the sailors), when seeds and nuts would suit the parrots much better (the parrots would have to be trained to accept crackers as regular food) and would be much more nutritious, for both parrots and sailors, than crackers; or a speculation about pet owners offering crackers as treats to their household pets and then training them to not only accept them but to seek them out.

But if we’re speculating, we might equally speculate that there is simply a fashion for teaching parrots to say “Polly Wanna Cracker”, because the expression is fairly easy for them to learn (no judgments of food quality on the parrots’ part are involved) — just as there clearly is a fashion for teaching them to say “Pretty Bird” (no judgments of beauty on the parrots’ part are involved).

The pear-tree pun.


(#6) The Bizarro of 5/2/13, in which a farmer exhorts a tree to Grow a pear!

But the preceding C’mon, man! makes the whole thing into a pun on exhortations to someone to Grow a pair! — to develop a pair of balls / testicles (with the testicles viewed as the locus of masculine power).

The Wiktionary entry for grow a pair:

(vulgar, idiomatic) To be brave; to show some courage, especially in a situation in which one has so far failed to do so. Etymology: Abbreviation of grow a pair of testicles.

And from my 3/14/19 posting “Caribou with a pair”:

The idiom grow a pairRoughly ‘man up’, involving the truncation …  a pair ‘a pair of (literal or figurative) balls/testicles’.

One Response to “Two parrots and a pear tree”

  1. Jan Bobrowicz Says:

    A New Yorker cartoon in which a pirate has a rabbit on his shoulder. Underneath, the caption: “Aye, there’ll be baskets of treasure for us upon Easter Island,” although I would have captioned it: “Batten down the hutches!”

    Why is there no aspirin in the rainforest?
    Because the parrots eat ’em all.
    (BrE) “paracetamol”, (AmE) “acetaminophen”: a common analgesic.

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