IMMORTALIA.

A hilarious/depressing post by the excellent Dan Hartung (about censorship of the comic strip Get Fuzzy) in his blog Stilicho (“a barbarian in the civilized world”—you know Stilicho, right?) led me to an investigation of the least respectable of the various meanings of the word beaver, which of course led me to the OED, where I discovered that the first citation of this meaning was:
1927 Immortalia 166 She took off her clothes From her head to her toes, And a voice at the keyhole yelled, ‘Beaver!’
(The next, from 1939, is from—wait for it—Finnegans Wake.) I did a little more investigation and discovered that Immortalia: An Anthology of American Ballads, Sailors’ Songs, Cowboy Songs, College Songs, Parodies, Limericks, and other humorous verses and doggerel is online, each edition lovingly photographed and the entire contents reproduced by John Mehlberg (who would like to hear from you if you happen to have a copy of one of the printings he knows of but has not seen). My hat is off to him, and you can see the actual limerick cited by the OED (number LIV, on page 166) here. (Um, not safe for work, in case you hadn’t figured that out.)
Update (2011). Alas, Dan has taken his blog down and Immortalia.com has been taken over by a link farmer, so there’s really not much point to this post any more. Ah well, I updated the dead “you know Stilicho” link to a Wikipedia entry, so at least one of the links works.

Comments

  1. Heh. According to the comics nerds on Usenet, it’s actually such a subtle joke that most papers, nobody will even notice. Apparently some editors didn’t notice …
    Considering that GF has exactly the same setup as Garfield, I sure am glad the gags are funnier.

  2. Oh, and it’s kind of surprising that the meaning arose so late (well, if citations, especially of risqué slang, are at all accurate) — I would’ve thought it might be tied to, say, the popularity of beaver hats or something.
    Of course, the meaning has become so ubiquitous that Beaver College changed its name to Adelphia University. (Maxim shows why. Uh … nyuk.)

  3. That would be Arcadia University

  4. Thanks a lot, now I’ve got an unrepeatable old-man-from-Nantucket earworm…

  5. Beards were common until WWI, but after that they
    went out of fashion when the military look was big.
    So only old-fashioned men wore beards. There was
    a game called “Beaver” in which the first person
    to call out “Beaver!” on spotting someone with a beard got a point. This is the joke in the 1927 citation. It’s also been used just when you spot something you’re looking for. This usage can be heard in the movie “If I Had a Million”. Of course
    W.C. Fields was probably well aware of the double entendre.

  6. That’s definitely important context — thanks!

  7. Gardner says:

    My father born in 1909 and brought up in SE London told me about playing Beaver as a boy. Different points were scored according to the colour of the beard. Because beards were old fashioned, most were worn by old men and grey got the lowest score. Red got the highest score and may even have won the game outright.

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