NOV SHMOZ KA POP.

Arnold Zwicky of Language Log posts a detailed exegesis of the words and phrases used in a recent Zippy cartoon: “Nov shmoz ka pop?” “Notary Sojac!” “Nize baby! Banana oil! Jeep!” “Potrzebie! Ferschlugginer! Axolotl!” I’m too young to remember The Squirrel Cage or Smokey Stover (though the phrase “Nov shmoz ka pop,” from the former, does ring a faint bell, so I must have seen it used somewhere by someone quoting it, perhaps in my days in science fiction fandom), but the Mad Magazine flashbacks were a nostalgic thrill. I remember how bamboozled I was when I discovered that potrzebie was an actual Polish word, pronounced po-CHEB-yeh rather than POT-er-zee-bee; I still, however, use the latter pronunciation, because I speak Mad but I don’t speak Polish.

Comments

  1. No one in this multiblog thread seems to have mentioned the Potrzebie system of measurement units, described by Wikipedia thus:

    In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures”, developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth, later a famed computer scientist. According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm. Volume was measured in ngogn (equal to 1000 cubic potrzebies), mass in blintz (equal to the mass of 1 ngogn of halavah, which is “a form of pie [with] a specific gravity of 3.1416 and a specific heat of .31416″), and time in seven named units (decimal powers of the average earth rotation, equal to 1 “clark”). The system also features such units as whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo and hah.

    I’m also interested in your use of bamboozle above. I (and both AHD4 and NID3) understand it to mean ‘deceive, hoodwink, mislead’, but you seem to use it to mean something like ‘startle’ or perhaps ‘baffle’. Checking m-w.com, which is more up to date, I do find a second sense ‘confuse, frustrate’, but their citation-free example ‘a quarterback bamboozled by an unexpected defense’ strikes me as a better exemplar for the first sense, and I wonder if the supposed second sense actually exists. Wiktionary says there is an AAVE slang sense ‘defraud, trick, con’, which strikes me as indistinguishably close from the standard sense. But none of these senses seem to fit your sentence at all.

  2. Hmm… maybe “bamboozled” isn’t quite the right word. I love it so much I may use it as much for sound as meaning. But ‘confused’ works in my sentence, so I think I’ll leave it.

  3. See http://www.answers.com/topic/potrzebie for an exhaustive background to the word’s usage in Mad.

  4. Is the complete Potrzebie System system online someplace? As opposed to just a summary? Or do I need to get the old issue or the appropriate anthology book from eBay?
    The answers.com entry appears to be the same as the Wikipedia entry.
    Axolotls aren’t just salamander-like, they are salamanders. And they’re neotenous, as the Wikipedia explains. We used to have a whole aquarium full of them.

  5. The answers.com article is a copy of the Wikipedia entry.
    BTW, the standard Polish pronunciation of potrzebie is closer to what Wikipedia gives, that is with a sequence of a stop and a fricative (or an affricate and a fricative) rather than an affricate.

  6. Stephen Mulraney says:

    And don’t forget the retroflex quality of that stop plus fricative!

  7. David Marjanović says:

    “BTW, the standard Polish pronunciation of potrzebie is closer to what Wikipedia gives, that is with a sequence of a stop and a fricative (or an affricate and a fricative) rather than an affricate.”
    How is that feasible — without releasing the /t/ and thus putting a schwa into the sequence?

  8. My Google-Fu is in better form this morning.
    Half the Potrzebie System is reproduced in Completely Mad. To be specific, in the lower-right corner of page 191 is a copy of page 36 from issue #33. This is all that is quoted on most sites that come up in search (or less if they just explain the Knuth connection).
    The whole is part of the compilation volume Like, Mad, originally from the 60s, but with relatively recent “Anniversary Edition” reprints.
    And here is a rec.humor posting from 1987 quoting from that. As you can see, pg. 36 more obsessively laid the foundation for the joke, which means that the joke density was higher on pg. 37.

  9. michael farris says:

    “How is that feasible”
    Good question, the difference between trz and cz is partly juncture and partly articulatory.
    For the juncture part, in English almost minimal pair
    catch it /kAtSit/ and cat shit /kAt Sit/
    gives some idea of the difference.
    Also, when I’ve asked native speakers the t in trz is dental and the sz further back (though not really retroflex for most speakers) and I think the t might be almost geminated.
    Cz is articulated further back alveolar or just post alveolar (not retroflex for most modern speakers AFAICT)
    Some speakers don’t clearly distinguish trz and cz but that’s considered a little sub-standard – okay in informal everday circumstances but in formal speech a person is expected to be able to differentiate them (and many speakers always do).
    The same pair also exists voiced with drz and dż (though sometimes some speakers pronounce dż like drz)

  10. Bravo and sincere thanks to Michael Farris for his response to the question, “How is that feasible?” I could taste it but needed someone to explain it.
    Since I already had learned some Polish by the first time I saw the word potrzebie in Mad, I never learned to speak it in Mad and am still not sure what it actually sounds like in that dialect. Still, I have always liked the taste of the word with its little spoon-shaped dip just behind the front curve of the tongue against the alveolar ridge.
    Thanks again for the explanation!

  11. “the former, does ring a faint bell, so I must have seen it used somewhere by someone quoting it, perhaps in my days in science fiction fandom”
    I certainly remember it being an intermittent catchphrase in SF fanzines, particularly the more humorous and fannish sort. I’m pretty sure I recall it appearing in cartoons by Steve Stiles or Dan Steffan or maybe both.

  12. Aha—thanks for the confirmation!

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