Freddish.

Maxwell King writes for the Atlantic about how Fred Rogers crafted the language used on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, saying his “placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program”:

He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally.

As Arthur Greenwald, a former producer of the show, put it to me, “There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called “Freddish.”

Fundamentally, Freddish anticipated the ways its listeners might misinterpret what was being said. For instance, Greenwald mentioned a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said “I’m going to blow this up.” Greenwald recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.” […] And Rogers’s secretary, Elaine Lynch, remembered how, when one script referred to putting a pet “to sleep,” he excised it for fear that children would be worried about the idea of falling asleep themselves.

Rogers was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go. For instance, in a scene in which he had an eye doctor using an ophthalmoscope to peer into his eyes, he made a point of having the doctor clarify that he wasn’t able to see Rogers’s thoughts. Rogers also wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew that drains were something that, to kids, seemed to exist solely to suck things down.

There’s a list of the “nine steps for translating into Freddish” and a discussion of how Rogers’s philosophy of child development “is actually derived from some of the leading 20th-century scholars of the subject”:

In the 1950s, Rogers, already well known for a previous children’s TV program, was pursuing a graduate degree at The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary when a teacher there recommended he also study under the child-development expert Margaret McFarland at the University of Pittsburgh. There he was exposed to the theories of legendary faculty, including McFarland, Benjamin Spock, Eric Erikson, and T. Berry Brazelton. Rogers learned the highest standards in this emerging academic field, and he applied them to his program for almost half a century.

I can practically hear some of you grumbling about how kids shouldn’t be talked down to and need to be exposed to irony and nuance and allusion and whatever. But Rogers was not writing for disaffected teens or snarky fourth-graders; he was writing for preschoolers, who are desperately trying to understand how the world works and need all the help they can get, especially if their families aren’t as much help as they should be. I never watched the show myself as a kid (it was after my time), but I’ve heard and read too many people saying how much it meant to them to look askance at it. And if you’re wondering if kids really are that literal, here’s a bit of testimony from the MetaFilter thread where I got the link:

He’s right about kids being literal! I remember hearing some grownups talk as a kid and my old sick grand uncle saying he wished he could get out of this pickle and I was like whoa, he’s sicker than I thought… He thinks he’s in a pickle!

I felt really extra sad for him then. Kid brains are so weird.

Comments

  1. I had seen the tweet cited in the MetaFilter thread about Rogers inserting reshoots into old episodes to change “he” to epicene “they”. So Freddish was a living language.

  2. There was once a Mad magazine cartoon (by Al Jaffee?), imagining kids’ interpretations of headlines. I remember “Party Leaders Split on Platform.”

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    Preciousness applied to concern and control. This is PC for kids.

    Adult brains are so weird.

  4. I remember hearing on the radio about “butcherd children” in the Yugoslav wars and it crystalized what I had always known: “Some people eat children”. (my great grandmother would also squeeze my arm and say that there was a lot of meat on me, so I knew she was hungry for some childflesh too).

  5. “Party Leaders Split on Platform.”

    The one I remember is “Gorillas [i.e. guerrillas] Battle on Plain of Jars”. I figured that Jars was a Vietnamese word, but the Plain of Jars is actually a region in Laos known for its prehistoric burials in stone jars, though they do not of course tessellate the whole region as shown in the cartoon.

  6. Ken Miner says:

    You don’t have to be a kid. From the blog Poemas del río Wang:

    “When Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, the centuries old tradition of keeping dancing beers was banned in the country.”

    There was time enough for several interesting images to form in my mind before I got it.

  7. Dancing beers
    Huh. I read right across that when I was reading the post at Poemas, without even noticing the typo.

  8. I remember hearing people talk about “the crack of dawn”, and instead of understanding it as a visual description, I decided it must be an auditory one. I imagined it as some enormous noise very early in the morning, which I had always slept through up to that point. So I willed myself to wake up extra early so I could hear the dawn crack. But all I heard was a lot of birds. I didn’t encounter the term “the dawn chorus” until many years later.

  9. Lars (the original one) says:

    “And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay”

    I think I encountered that before crack of dawn so I always thought it was an auditory metaphor, if that’s the word I’m looking for.

  10. David Marjanović says:

    As an unambiguously visual description I’ve encountered at the asscrack of dawn.

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    There’s also “at sparrowfart” for the very wee hours.

  12. As a young child I remember finding Mr Rogers kind of cloying, slow, and silly. I much preferred the louder brasher Electric Company as well as Sesame Street. My memories tell me that Mr Rogers did not really understand the intelligence and curiosity of young children, especially „gifted“ children. To be fair my 5 year old memories may have overwritten my 3 year old memories.

  13. Trond Engen says:

    Stu: “at sparrowfart”

    With alliteration in Norw. “før fuglene fiser”.

  14. the Plain of Jars is actually a region in Laos

    One of my earliest memories of being aware of world news is of the Plain of Jars being a topic of headlines during the various Laotian crises of the ’50s. I think the phrase “Quemoy and Matsu” is from more or less the same layer of memory.

    As a young child I remember finding Mr Rogers kind of cloying, slow, and silly. I much preferred the louder brasher Electric Company as well as Sesame Street. My memories tell me that Mr Rogers did not really understand the intelligence and curiosity of young children, especially „gifted“ children. To be fair my 5 year old memories may have overwritten my 3 year old memories.

    You may be right about the overwriting, or you may have been a prematurely disaffected/snarky three-year-old, but you are definitely wrong to put it onto Mr. Rogers not understanding the intelligence and curiosity of young children. Your personal experiences do not override those of the many, many kids who loved the show and remember it as formative in their lives.

  15. My ADHD daughter seemed to handle best the alternation of the two shows as was practiced on WNET (the New York public station) at the time. Sesame Street wound her up, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood calmed her down. I’m sorry that my ADHD/ASD grandson doesn’t get to see Mr. Rogers, only Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is literally The Land of Make-Believe: The Next Generation, but with animation rather than puppetry.

  16. prehistoric burials in stone jars

    That puts me in mind of 甕棺 kamekan.

  17. I have nothing but warm memories of Mr. Rogers. Growing up in his neighborhood, literally I remember talking with him, and the thrill of meeting this guy I saw on TV every weekday morning. He always made me feel apart of the discussion, in person and on TV.

    As an added note :
    As an adult I would run into Mr. Rogers at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, a predominantly male club and on numerous occasions swimming in the nude as was his morning ritual. I do my best to block those images from memory and replace them with.. oh darn there they are again!

  18. when i read this profile of fred rogers, twenty years ago, i was convinced he was a saint

    https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

  19. you are definitely wrong to put it onto Mr. Rogers not understanding the intelligence and curiosity of young children.

    Well, I do agree, speaking as an adult, that Fred Rogers was probably one of the finest human beings who ever lived. I also loved Mr Rogers the man when I was a child, it was his TV show I found inferior to the sadly forgotten Electric Company. But I also never liked Zoom! so I was weird kid I guess.

  20. I do my best to block those images from memory and replace them with …

    Fred Rogers, like his Lord, was an incarnate human being.

  21. January First-of-May says:

    I do my best to block those images from memory

    Inevitable related XKCD.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    With self-referential alt-text!

  23. When I was a little older, I really liked The Electric Company. That show was designed to teach reading skills specifically to children who were a bit older (ages 5-7), compared to Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. When I had kids of my own, my parents bought my a boxed set of episodes of The Electric Company, so I had the chance to re-watch some of the episode comparatively recently. The show had a lot of excellent (and famous) people on it: a young-ish Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, voicing by Joan Rivers and music by Tom Lehrer. The Spider-Man segments (where Spider-Man’s dialogue was only given in speech bubbles, which had to be read), led me to be a lifelong fan of that superhero. Re-watching it as a adult, was neat, although neither as a child nor a grown-up did I understand why Rita Morena yelling, “Hey, you guys!” was supposed to be funny.

    After The Electric Company on the PBS station’s schedule was 3-2-1 Contact, an excellent science show. (I especially liked the first season.) As a kid I subscribed to the 3-2-1 Contact magazine, which continued until well after the show had ceased to air. I decided it was time to cancel my subscription when it became clear that the show had been off the air so long that the magazine was now being written for an audience that was assumed to have never seen the show. In the summer, 3-2-1 Contact was replaced on the schedule by PowerHouse, an urban crime drama series for kids, which I also loved.

    As I got older, I naturally found the shows that focused on learning basic language skills and math less interesting. When I was about six, my brother was three and watching the shows aimed at pre-schoolers regularly. I found Sesame Street to be much less interesting to me, with its focus on simple numbers and letters, than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was more about life and the world around us. During the hour when the PBS station was broadcasting The Electric Company and 3-2-1 Contact, one of the commercial channels broadcast reruns of Star Trek, which would also sometimes watch; Star Trek was also educational for me, but in a different way.

  24. J.W. Brewer says:

    I have not gone back to Electric Company since having kids of my own, although I enjoyed it during part of its initial run (I missed a few seasons while living outside the U.S.). I was chagrined in adulthood to realize that I had, as a child, failed to “get” the joking wordplay in the name of “Fargo North, Decoder.” Of course that wordplay is more transparent for the non-rhotic and maybe they didn’t field test it sufficiently in rhotic areas of the country before going on-air?

  25. Well, there seems to be a certain willingness to bend the rhoticity boundary in wordplay. Jurassic Park’s “doyouthinkhesaurus” line was coined by rhotic screenwriters and delivered by a rhotic kid actor.

  26. I didn’t get the joke until my mother pointed out that there was a city called Fargo in North Dakota.

    The actor who played Fargo North, Skip Hinnant, is from Virginia, and his pronunciation of his name and profession was fully rhotic (as can be heard here).

  27. “the centuries old tradition of keeping dancing beers”

    The dancing beers are the sixth to eighth, inclusive. (1: starting beer; 2-3; the talking beers; 4-5: the shouting beers; 9-10: the singing beers; 11-12: the wandering beers.)

  28. Followed, of course, by the recumbent beers.

  29. willingness to bend the rhoticity boundary in wordplay

    I think the majority of American kids reading the name Eeyore don’t appreciate it until years later, if they ever do. Certainly I didn’t.

  30. marie-lucie says:

    I only encountered Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore etc as an adult, and it took me a while to understand the origin of “Eeyore” – it is not obvious when you only read the names, without trying to pronounce them.

    But how many American kids have ever heard a donkey (or even seen a real live one)?

  31. American kids, at least in the late ’60s, learned the sounds of lots of animals they never actually saw or heard in real life. The song “Old MacDonald” and various books and toys teach them. I assume such things still are common, but I could be wrong. I certainly knew “hee-haw”; I just didn’t connect it with Eeyore.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    Especially since the creator of “Eeyore” must have been a non-rhotic speaker.

  33. I read somewhere that “ribbit”, the canonical frog sound in (American?) English, is imitative of some West Coast species of frog that’s common near Los Angeles, and not of frogs in general.

  34. It was Christopher Robin Milne who named Eeyore, but his father decided on the spelling. Both, of course, were non-rhotic speakers. (I actually found this 1928 recording of Christopher Robin on YouTube.)

  35. David Marjanović says:

    I read somewhere that “ribbit”, the canonical frog sound in (American?) English, is imitative of some West Coast species of frog that’s common near Los Angeles, and not of frogs in general.

    Correct. That’s why German-speaking frogs say quak (long vowel), complete with a verb quaken… though the treefrogs don’t sound like that either. Italian-speaking frogs even go cra cra.

    German-speaking donkeys, meanwhile, unround and say I-A. Till Eulenspiegel taught one to read…

  36. marie-lucie says:

    French-speaking donkeys say hi han (with “h muet” and high-low tone difference).

    The verb for what frogs say is coasser.

  37. Brekekekex koax koax.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    I remember reading “brekekekex” as a child, perhaps in a book translated from English.

  39. Lars (the original one) says:

    Brekekekèx koàx koáx is from Aristophanes’ The Frogs. Akismet won’t let me show the original Greek but it has the accents shown.

    Also borrowed by H.C.Andersen in Thumbelina which is where I knew it from.

  40. January First-of-May says:

    German-speaking donkeys, meanwhile, unround and say I-A.

    So do the Russian donkeys – and indeed Eeyore becomes Иа-Иа in the Zakhoder version (and simply Иа in the Khitruk cartoons based on it).
    As for Russian frogs, they say kva (ква), or occasinally kvak (квак).

    I read somewhere that “ribbit”, the canonical frog sound in (American?) English, is imitative of some West Coast species of frog that’s common near Los Angeles

    I thought it was an Australian species, because the one appearance of this call that I was familiar with came from an Australian webcomic.

    But no – annotations to the webcomic explicitly identify the exact species that “ribbit” is imitative of (Pseudacris regilla, the Pacific tree frog), which indeed is common in California (though perhaps not near Los Angeles specifically).

  41. German-speaking donkeys, meanwhile, unround and say I-A.

    As in the throw-away line in Bruno Snell’s 1935 article on the similarity between the Greek word for no and the sound Greek donkeys make: während kurioserweise die deutschen Esel gerade umgekehrt immer nur ‚ja‘ sagen*, with reference to Hitler’s referendum.

    *”While, strangely, the German donkeys consistently say just the opposite: ‘Ja’.”

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