Zippyphrases 2

Some riffing on yesterday’s posting “Catchphrases for sale”, about this Zippy strip:

(#1) Offering fresh phrases — not already in circulation as catchphrases, sayings, proverbs, slogans, famous quotations, well-known names and titles, and the like — chosen at random

Zippy’s fresh phrases sound like catchphrases — roughly, free-standing expressions that you recognize as coming from a stock of quotations widely known in your culture, which then (if you wish) can be conventionally used to make some point — but are in fact novel. The things called catchphrases are then exquisitely embedded in particular cultures (note: “widely known in your culture” and also “can be conventionally used”).

Some examples from American culture (broadly conceived), from a few of the types of sources for catchphrases:

Comedian catchphrases: I get no respect; Can we talk?; Dyn-o-mit!

Movie and tv catchphrases : Danger, Will Robinson; Book ’em, Danno!; You talkin’ to me?

Advertising catchphrases, which are called slogans: Just do it; Betcha can’t eat just one; The quicker picker upper

Political catchphrases, which are also called slogans: I like Ike; Bread and roses; In your heart you know he’s right

Like catchphrases, proverbs / sayings — A stitch in time saves nine; Waste not, want not; The early bird gets the worm — are free-standing and are used to make some point, but their quotational origins are hazy at best, and they are framed as explicit advice. Meanwhile, idioms and clichés are similarly hazy in origin but are usually syntactically integrated into larger expressions, the mark of clichés being that they are (as Orin Hargraves puts it in his 2014 book It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés) both overused and ineffective — and are therefore also annoying. Note the hugely subjective character of these definitional criteria, so classifying a formulaic expression as a cliché — Hargraves’s initial examples: a breath of fresh air; few and far between; at the end of the day — depends on individual experience, but then on shared culture.

Odd-random expressions. Zippy’s service offers random expressions, meaning chosen at random, that are fresh, meaning chosen from the stock of expressions not already in circulation as formulas. His one example — If zombies bought my building, can I legally get out of my lease? — suggests that his randomly chosen expressions will also be “odd-random”, in the sense odd, unusual, or unexpected’ (NOAD) of the adjective random; well, this is Zippy, after all.

My mind was then drawn to expressions that are odd-random but not randomly chosen: chosen instead for their quotational resonance, but to quotations that haven’t become catchphrases. Three pairs of such expressions:

— see how they snide and semolina pilchard (from the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”)

— Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh (Frank Zappa album titles from 1970)

— runcible spoon (Edward Lear nonsense verse, “The Owl and the Pussycat”) and slithy toves (Lewis Carroll nonsense verse, “Jabberwocky”)

To which I can add expressions that are odd-random but not randomly chosen, and are freshly created for their cleverness, for example the POP chains / portmanteau jams from my 1/31/22 posting “The portmanteau truck”, like

 portmanteau jam and Jelly Roll Morton’s saltwater Taffy was a Welshman

Now notes on the Lennon, the Zappa, and the nonsense verse.

The Lennon. From Wikipedia:

(#2) US sleeve for the song; you can listen to the 2009 remastered recording of the song here

“I Am the Walrus” is a song by the English rock band the Beatles from their 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour. Written by John Lennon and credited to Lennon–McCartney, it was released as the B-side to the single “Hello, Goodbye” and on the Magical Mystery Tour EP and album. In the film, the song underscores a segment in which the band mime to the recording at a deserted airfield.

Lennon wrote the song to confound listeners who had been affording serious scholarly interpretations of the Beatles’ lyrics. He was partly inspired by two LSD trips and Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter”. Producer George Martin arranged and added orchestral accompaniment that included violins, cellos, horns, and clarinet. The Mike Sammes Singers, a 16-voice choir of professional studio vocalists, also joined the recording, variously singing nonsense lines and shrill whooping noises.

Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. First, the 1970 studio album Burnt Weeny Sandwich (whose title is still inclined to make me clutch my privates defensively). From the Wikipedia entry:

The album’s unusual title, Zappa would later say in an interview, comes from an actual snack that he enjoyed eating, consisting of a burnt Hebrew National hot dog sandwiched between two pieces of bread with mustard.

Then, another 1970 album, this one with mixed live and studio performances. The title came from a Man’s Life magazine story:


Zappa then combined the image from the Man’s Life cover with the image from this Schick shaver ad:


to get the cover image for the album:


The nonsense verse. From the Britannica site on

nonsense verse, humorous or whimsical verse that differs from other comic verse in its resistance to any rational or allegorical interpretation. Though it often makes use of coined, meaningless words, it is unlike the ritualistic gibberish of children’s counting-out rhymes in that it makes these words sound purposeful.

Skilled literary nonsense verse is rare; most of it has been written for children and is modern, dating from the beginning of the 19th century. The cardinal date could be considered 1846, when The Book of Nonsense was published; this was a collection of limericks composed and illustrated by the artist Edward Lear, who first created them in the 1830s for the children of the earl of Derby. This was followed by the inspired fantasy of Lewis Carroll, whose Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872) both contain brilliant nonsense rhymes.

Nonsense verse is of course highly organized. Much of it draws on the ordinary vocabulary and syntax of a language, and is completely well-formed — but describes absurd or ridiculous situations, like an owl and a pussycat getting married on a boat. Sometimes it uses nonsense words, like the coined adjectives runcible and slithy. But otherwise it’s coherent and comprehensible.

The specter of incoherence. But, up in #1, Claude asks, “How do you make money out of stringin’ a few unrelated words together? If you just string words together any old way, you get what we call in the ling biz word salad. From NOAD:

noun word salad: a confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases, specifically (in psychiatry) as a form of speech indicative of advanced schizophrenia. [The compound noun can be either M(ass) — His speech was just word salad (my usage) — or C(ount) — His speech was just a word salad.]

Yes, it is, sadly, a thing. A section from my 8/6/15 posting “T****’s incoherence”, about a Helmet Grabpussy speech, discussed on Language Log by Geoff Pullum, who found it incoherent, and Mark Liberman, who argued that at least some of the incoherence was only apparent:

Thought disorder. From Wikipedia:

Thought disorder (TD) or formal thought disorder (FTD) refers to disorganized thinking as evidenced by disorganized speech. Specific thought disorders include derailment, poverty of speech, tangentiality, illogicality, perseveration, neologism, and thought blocking.

[among the recognized derangements is the …]”Flight of ideas” – a form of formal thought disorder marked by abrupt leaps from one topic to another, albeit with discernable links between successive ideas, perhaps governed by similarities between subjects or, in somewhat higher grades, by rhyming, puns, and word plays (clang associations), or innocuous environmental stimuli – e.g., the sound of birds chirping. It is most characteristic of the manic phase of bipolar illness.

Now I’ve written here about “associative thinking”, in which someone moves through a chain of ideas, each one latching naturally to the one before, but easily capable of carrying someone far from a starting point. We all think this way, and everyday conversation tends to follow such paths, only for a group as a whole rather than for just one speaker. There is nothing disordered in any of that.

I’ve observed the flight of ideas up close in people in the manic phase of bipolar illness, and somewhat similar associations in classic schizophrenics, and indeed related disordered associations in people with dementia, including my partner Jacques (who was especially subject to intrusions of sounds and sights from the environment into his train of thought). [Helmet Grabpussy] looks distressingly familiar to me.

Catchphrases, clichés, whatever. The other Zippy strip I posted yesterday, from a 1/23/15 posting of mine, “Catchphrases”, has our Pinhead memorizing what the strip calls (annoying) catchphrases, but are in fact run-of-the mill clichés:

(#6) Recall that annoyingness is one of Hargrave’s characteristics of clichés

It turns out that a fair number of people use catchphrase and cliché more or less interchangeably. But if you make a distinction, as Hargraves and I do, these things belong in the cliché heap.

And here we have a renowned authority on our side: Mr. Arbuthnot the Cliche Expert. From the Wikipedia article on Frank Sullivan:

Frank Sullivan (September 22, 1892 – February 19, 1976) was an American humorist, best remembered for creating the character Mr. Arbuthnot the Cliche Expert.

… Sullivan wrote his first article for The New Yorker in 1926, the year after it was founded. His most celebrated character, Mr. Arbuthnot, created in 1934, made his debut in the issue of August 31, 1935 in “The Cliche Expert Takes the Stand”. In one story Mr. Arbuthnot was asked what he did for exercise, and he replied, “I keep the wolf from the door, let the cat out of the bag, take the bull by the horns, count my chickens before they are hatched, and see that the horse isn’t put behind the cart or stolen before I lock the barn door”.

The last Mr. Arbuthnot story, “The Cliche Expert Testifies On the Campaign”, appeared in The New Yorker on September 13, 1952.

Excellent clichés, every one of them.

Then, a calendrical endnote. Today, in American format, is 3/11 (March 11th). Reversing day and month gives us 11/3, November 3rd — and November 3rd is National Cliché Day, every year, come hell or high water.


One Response to “Zippyphrases 2”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Of course, Zippy does use catchphrases, though none are shown in #1 – I suppose it would be dishonest of him to use the catchphrases he is selling anyway – and he does not use the deprecated phrases in #6. Most famously, he originated “Are we having fun yet?” That one is in the Yale Book of Quotations. He also once used “Boutros Boutros Ghali” as a catchphrase.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: