10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

iStock/crisserbug
iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Can You Pick the Body Parts Described by the Adjectives?

The History Behind 7 New York City Street Names

deberarr/istock via getty images
deberarr/istock via getty images

Modern life means constantly rushing to get places, especially in New York. Whether it’s the daily grind to get to work or the rush to hit happy hour, residents are probably concentrating more on getting somewhere than carefully considering the details of their surroundings.

But next time you're in New York—or if you're a resident already—try looking up from your phone to take a peek at the street names above you. Along with your more common numbered designations and things like "Park Avenue," you’ll notice the city has some pretty strange denominations. Here are seven of the more eye-catching, and the brief history behind their names.

1. Asser Levy Place

Tucked between the generically named 23rd and 25th streets, Asser Levy Place stands out like a sore thumb. Located not far from Stuyvesant Town, this unassuming street bears the name for a pretty prominent historical figure.

Said to have been born in what is now Poland and Lithuania, Asser Levy was one of the first Jewish settlers to land in the predominantly Dutch New Amsterdam. The governor at the time, Peter Stuyvesant, was “violently opposed” to the freshly emigrated Jewish community, unhappy at the fact that they were now allowed to trade and reside within the area [PDF]. Levy was not only the first kosher butcher in the land but also the first Jew to gain rights of citizenship in the country. Additionally, Levy donated funds to help New York fight the British Crown, and eventually took up arms against the British himself.

2. Maiden Lane

The history behind Maiden Lane’s designation is just as picturesque as it sounds. Known to Dutch settlers as Maagde Paatje (or “maiden path”), this portion of land once ran alongside a brook where women and girls would wash clothing. There are darker associations with the area too, though: Maiden Lane also saw a brutal slave revolt in 1712.

Today the street is one of many centers of commerce for the city, although the concrete still holds remnants of the city’s more ornate past. Passersby can take a look at the Barthman Clock, a 19th-century timepiece embedded into the intersection of Maiden Lane and Broadway.

3. Mott Street

Located primarily in the heart of Chinatown, Mott Street’s modern associations aren’t the most flattering. Once the site of multiple crime scenes and illegal activities, the street has garnered a somewhat seedy reputation over time.

But before it became affiliated with the seedy underbelly, Mott Street had patriotic associations. Joseph Mott, the street’s namesake, owned a tavern used as headquarters for General George Washington in 1775. His descendants proved dedicated to equally worthy causes, with Dr. Valentine Mott rising to prominence as one of America’s most influential surgeons.

4. Pearl Street

Before the concrete jungle fully took over, the streets of New York were dominated by oysters. Due to their bountiful number, the shells of shucked clams would pile up into what archaeologists call middens—large piles of domestic waste that have survived the centuries. One particularly large heap was located on the modern-day Pearl Street, giving rise to the mollusk-related moniker. Oddly, however, these oysters were not the pearl-producing kind—although they dominated a good portion of the New York market for quite some time.

5. Minetta Lane

Speaking of water-related items, did you know a once-babbling creek was paved over by one of the city’s more famous streets? That’s right: Known to the Dutch as Mintje Kill or “small stream,” Minetta Brook was “[a] brisk little brook full of trout,” according to one 19th century source, that was covered by the city’s expansion around the 1820s. It was also where a community of “half free” African Americans resided in the 17th century—former enslaved people that were allowed to live on the land by paying annual fees.

6. MacDougal Street

MacDougal Street is known for its vibrant nightlife and for hosting the early days of Bob Dylan’s career. But it also holds claim to a not-so-well-known spelling error.

The street was named for one Alexander Mcdougall, a Scotsman who emigrated to what would become the United States as a child in 1740 and settled in New York. Mcdougall made a name for himself in the mercantile trade and shipping business and was an early defender of American independence. He openly voiced his opinions against British rule, and was even imprisoned for passing out revolutionary pamphlets. His colorful life saw him commissioned as a colonel in the First New York Infantry during the Revolutionary War, become a member of the Continental Congress, and rise as the first president of the Bank of New York. However, how or why the second L in his name was dropped in the naming of the street remains a mystery.

7. Margaret Corbin Drive

Located at the city’s far northern tip, Margaret Corbin Drive is named for a young Pennsylvanian woman whose tough life molded her into a tougher lady. Her childhood saw the death of her father by Native Americans and her mother’s capture soon after; years later, the British killed her husband during the Battle of Fort Washington. Margaret, who was standing by his side at the time, quickly took his place in the conflict by handling his cannon—receiving several bullets as a result.

The U.S. government recognized her bravery by providing her disability compensation (as well as rum and whiskey rations) for many years. Although sometimes remembered as a “haughty and disagreeable eccentric,” the affectionately called “Captain Molly” is forever memorialized by the street running along the site where her brave acts took place.

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