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HomenewsOpinionCartoons and Comic Strips Shape Our Language

Cartoons and Comic Strips Shape Our Language

Richard Lederer is inspired by his hometown festival dedicated to cartoon characters

San Diego Comic-Con is the largest gathering of comics and pop culture enthusiasts in the world. Held a couple of weeks ago, the event has sold out the past decade, and more than 130,000 flocked to the fun as our city perked up to the joys and color of comic book characters in our collective consciousness. These creations are so woven into the warp and woof of our culture that some of them have transmogrified into images and words in our everyday speech and writing.

Thomas Nast, perhaps the most famous political cartoonist in our history, was responsible for the popularity of two party animals. During the election of 1828, opponents of President Andrew Jackson labeled him a “jackass” for his populist beliefs. Jackson was entertained by the notion and ended up using it to his advantage on his campaign posters. Nast is credited with making Jackson’s donkey the symbol of the Democratic Party through one of his cartoons that appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1870.

Four years later, also in Harper’s Weekly, Nast drew a donkey clothed in lion’s skin, scaring away all the animals at the zoo. One of those animals, the elephant, was labeled “The Republican Vote.” That was all it took for the elephant to become associated with Republicans.

In 1928, Walt Disney gave the world Mickey—an all-American rodent who performed heroic deeds and squeaked his undying love for Minnie. Soon after World War II, international markets were flooded with wristwatches bearing Mickey’s likeness. Because these watches were generally cheap affairs subject to mechanical breakdowns, people started calling anything shoddy or trivial Mickey Mouse.

The name of H. T. Webster’s wimpy comic-strip character, Caspar Milquetoast, has become a synonym for a wimpy, unassertive man. In a similar vein, some scholars assert that the term sad sack to designate a pathetically inept man, especially a soldier, owes its origin to the cartoon character created by George Baker in 1942.

Speaking of wimpy, some linguists trace that adjective to Elzie Segar’s cartoon strip Thimble Theatre, which, when animated, became Popeye. Wimpy was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, lazy, parsimonious, and utterly gluttonous hamburger-wolfing straight man to Popeye.

The opposite of a wimpy person is a Superman, the comic-book creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Superman has become a superman, a person who exhibits extraordinary powers.

Siegel and Shuster purloined the name Superman from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch, meaning “overman,” in Thus Spake Zarathustra and George Bernard Shaw’s translation of the term in his play Man and Superman. Only diehard trivia buffs know that Superman’s alter ego, the mild-mannered Clark Kent, derived his name from two 1930s movie stars—the iconic Clark Gable and the never-heard-of-him Kent Taylor.

On the fritz, meaning “not operating properly,” may have started with one of the earliest comic strips, The Katzenjammer Kids. Typically, the two hyperactive German boys Hans and Fritz caused all sorts of troubles for the Captain and other grownups in the story.
Two men of strikingly disparate height are dubbed Mutt and Jeff. The original mustachioed twosome, one tall, one short, inhabited a comic strip by Bud Fisher, the third created in the U.S.

For more than eight decades, Blondie’s husband has been creating culinary masterpieces in his kitchen, yet he does not appear to have gained an ounce (for which I envy him). Dagwood carries the cornucopia of ingredients from the refrigerator to the kitchen table on his arms and head, and the massive repasts he concocts are now known as Dagwood sandwiches.

The most famous and enduring of all quotations ever to emerge from a comic strip is the pronouncement declaimed by Walt Kelly’s immortal possum, Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” Some grammar mavens would argue that the us in Pogo’s statement is cast in the wrong pronoun case. We is puristically the correct pronoun form for a predicate nominative, but it would be sacrificing poetry on the altar of grammatical purism to recast the sentence as “We have met the enemy, and he is we!”

Richard Lederer, MAT English and education, PhD linguistics, is the author of more than 50 books on language, history, and humor, available at his website, Please send your questions and comments about language to [email protected].

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