Fiberglass football

The Zippy strip of 11/8, in which our Pinhead confronts the hulking fiberglass figure of Football Man (looming in front of the Moreland Tire Co., whose products Football Man is presumably exalting:

(#1) Whatever Moreland products Football Man is hawking, he’s also exalting football as quintessentially American — so if Zippy is no fan of the game, he’s no American either — and as a (dark) metaphor for life (next up in the game of life: brain damage)

Having spent 29 years as a college professor in Columbus OH, I have a lot to say about football, very little of it pleasant, but this is probably not the time to air my grievances.

So put that aside, and ask the questions that almost every Zippy strip provokes: who are these guys? what is this place?

Where and what. Bill Griffith hardly ever just invents this stuff; he deals in surreality, not fantasy. The diners, motels, and so on are versions of real buildings in real places, the public art works are versions of real art in real locations, the roadside figures (muffler men, giant creatures — mice, frogs, etc. — and objects — oil cans, coffeepots, etc.), however preposterous, are versions of real figures, standing somewhere real.

So, somewhere, sometime, there has been an actual Moreland Tire Co. with a football-player muffler-man in front of it, designed to draw passers-by in to buy whatever it is that the Moreland Tire Co. was selling (presumably tires+). I spent an absurd amount of time yesterday trying to find this Moreland Tire Co., without anything remotely clue-like turning up.

Until I stumbled on a Zippy strip from 18 years ago (10/3/03), using the same background art but with different text:

(#2) The title “Precision-Guided Football” is an allusion to military weaponry — precision-guided missiles — as analogous to footballs accurately aimed in pass plays

Otherwise, it’s about this particular athlete, against the stereotype, not being a dumb jock, though he’s drastically given to mis-speaking. (Yes, I know, he’s just a fiberglass advertising figure, what the fuck does he know? — but he is chatting, at some length, with Zippy, so we have to take him seriously.)

I’ll get to the content of the strip in few seconds, but now I see why I didn’t find the Moreland Tire Co. in my web searches: it might have been flourishing back in 2003, but has presumably closed down or changed names since, and searching for information about now-defunct businesses is usually hopeless.

This version of football-player muffler-man seems to be a transformation of George W. Bush, with his celebrated Bushisms, disfluencies of several types that were much mocked in the press when he was in the news. From the Wikipedia article on the subject:

Linguist Mark Liberman of Language Log has suggested that Bush is not unusually error-prone in his speech, saying: “You can make any public figure sound like a boob, if you record everything he says and set hundreds of hostile observers to combing the transcripts for disfluencies, malapropisms, word formation errors and examples of non-standard pronunciation or usage… Which of us could stand up to a similar level of linguistic scrutiny?”. Nearly a decade after George W. Bush said “misunderestimated” in a speech, Philip Hensher called the term one of his “most memorable additions to the language, and an incidentally expressive one: it may be that we rather needed a word for ‘to underestimate by mistake’.”

Three bits of mis-speaking. Muffing from FopMum (football-player muffler-man) in #2:

— “Shut up or I’ll put food on your family!” This one has the most direct relationship to Dubya’s actually recorded utterances. GWB, to the Greater Nashua NH Chamber of Commerce, 1/27/00, about a hypothetical single mother: “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.” Presumably his intention was something like “for you to put food on your family(‘s) table”, but it got truncated. However, FopMum is doing something different, something a lot goofier: he’s issuing a threat to Zippy: that he will, giggle, provide food for Zippy’s family.

— “I’m just misunderstanded!” With the PSP misunderstanded for misunderstood: a regularization of a high-frequency irregular inflectional form, very unusual in the real world for adult native speakers (which I think we’re entitled to take FopMum to be). It’s probably an indirect allusion to GWB’s misunderestimate, a previously unattested derived lexical item (still not in the OED).

Dubya’s production looks like an inadvertent (telescoping) blend of misunderstand and underestimate, rather than a clever neologism — because, though misunderestimate looks like negative mis– prefixed to underestimate to yield a verb meaning ‘incorrectly underestimate, underestimate by mistake’, the prefix does not in fact comfortably attach to stems that already have a productive prefix (understand doesn’t count, because the under element there isn’t the productive prefix of underestimate).

(I’m sure this has been pointed out by others, but I don’t have the references, so I’m making the observation here without attribution.)

Now, you might have proposed that misunderestimate and misoverestimate were merely strongly disfavored, because of the cognitive complexity of two prefixes with negative semantics: underestimating is estimating too low, incorrectly low; and overestimating is estimating too high, incorrectly high; the prefix mis– then contributes the judgment that these estimates are incorrect, so it’s a negative of a negative. Nothing wrong with that semantically, but it’s complex.

But the gap is general. Consider verbs with the (productive and secondarily accented) prefix pre-:

pre-record (We’ll pre-record the concert), pre-assign (I’m pre-assigning the classrooms for this term); but ??mispre-record ‘pre-record by mistake’, ??mis-pre-assign ‘incorrectly pre-assign’

Similarly for repetitive re– (re-establish, retrain), and reversative un– (uncover, untangle), and some others.

In any case, people were right to be taken aback by Dubya’s misunderestimate. Even though it makes sense when you work it out.

— “I had the greatest rectal mortitude!” The expression rectal mortitude in #2 is an invented near-spoonerism for moral rectitude; exchanging the first syllables of the two words would give rectal moritude, but mortitude is even funnier, and then the result will suggest the jocular intestinal fortitude for slang guts (semantically parallel rectal and intestinal, rhyming mortitude and fortitude). So FopMum is (very indirectly) boasting about his courage and determination, as well as his moral rectitude. (Bill Griffith packs an awful lot of stuff into his strips.)

In any case, NOAD has the relevant figurative sense of the noun gut, which developed from its basic senses ‘stomach, belly, intestine’ (cf. to have fire in one’s belly ‘to have strong inner strength, determination or ambition to achieve’, locating the source of courage and determination within the core of the body):

3 (gutsinformal personal courage and determination; toughness of character: she had both more brains and more guts than her husband | you just haven’t got the guts to admit it.

(Note: I know of no Bushism really close to rectal mortitude, though the Liberapedia site on Bushisms reports the spoonerisms mexed missages (mixed messages) and terriers and bariffs (barriers and tariffs).)

I know, I know, I haven’t dealt at all with (from #1):

I’m as American as pineapple upside-down cake! My ancestors came over on jet skis in 1952!!

There’s just so much in these strips.

5 Responses to “Fiberglass football”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Looks like there was a Moreland Tire Co., headed by a Walter H. Moreland, with locations in Phoenix, Coolidge, and Tucson, Arizona. But I don’t see any references to it after 1955. It claimed to be the largest tire retailer in Arizona. I don’t see any pictures of it, or references to a football player statue.

    There was also a Moreland Tire Co. in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, but it seems to have used the trade name Moreland Tire Discount House.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Pineapple upside-down cake seems to be quintessentially American, as listed in Wikipedia in contrast to French Tarte Tatin, etc.:

    Meanwhile, the Jet Ski dates to 1972, and earlier personal watercraft “first developed in the United Kingdom and Europe in the mid-1950s” so Zippy is in a surreal timeline (or was misinformed about his family origins).

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Many thanks, Ace Tracer.
      Yes, pineapple upside-down cake is quintessentially American (though I suspect that few Americans realize this), but it isn’t the *conventional* quintessential American cake/pie, the one used in the formulaic comparison: “as American as apple pie”.

      On the Jet Skis, many thanks. But Zippy does indeed live on a surreal timeline.

      • John Baker Says:

        I’m reminded of the song I’ll Always Be Irish, in the movie The Happiest Millionaire, in which the singer, an Irish immigrant to America, claims to be both Irish and truly American, His examples of the truly American quality are Casey at the Bat, which seems reasonable, and the more surprising Irish stew. He explains, “Ask for Irish stew in Ireland and see what you’ll get. In Ireland, all the stew is Irish!“

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