THE GUY WHO PUT THE PEP IN PEPPER.

Ben Zimmer has done an exemplary bit of research and reported on it at the Log:

Inspired by Mark Liberman’s post, “Putting the X in AXB,” I spent some time trying to find the origin for this venerable snowclone. A quick check of newspaper databases uncovered “putting the fun in fundamentals” from November 1912, and it turns out that the fall of 1912 was when the snowclone snowballed. It’s a nice example of how, even a century ago, lingua-memes could “go viral” (and go stale).

It seems that the originator of the meme (as far as we can tell a century later) was the cartoonist Thomas Aloysius “TAD” Dorgan Rube Goldberg, who was said to have “coined the gag phrase ‘I’m the guy who…’ around 1910, using it as a stock saying by one of the characters in a comic strip he was drawing.” In the summer of 1912, for whatever reason, it suddenly exploded in popularity; Ben quotes dozens of examples from late June to mid-December, and as he says, “by October 6, according to the Washington Post, the formula had already descended into ‘pale inanities’ from ‘pseudo-humorists.'” It’s a fine example of the way modern searchable databases have made possible a far more detailed investigation of the way linguistic phenomena spread; it’s also striking that this particular one is so productive it’s still popular—Bob LeDrew, in a Log comment, quotes a fine example from The Simpsons in which Homer says: “Mmmmm, Barbra Streisand… puts the she in yeshiva.”

Comments

  1. TAD Dorgan? I don’t recall ever seeing an ‘I’m the guy’ cartoon by him, but I have seen many by Rube Goldberg. He had a number of repeating gags in his comic strip, including ‘Mike and Ike–They Look Alike’ and ‘I’m the Guy’. They didn’t use the snowclone at first. E.g., someone would complain about the bones his fish dinner and at the end a guy would say ‘I’m the guy who put the bones in fish.’ Later, perhaps because it gave him more freedom of nouns, he turned to putting the X in AXB.
    http://www.enolagaia.com/ImTheGuy.html says,
    It was the cartoonist / humorist Rube Goldberg who coined the gag phrase “I’m the guy who….” circa 1910. As I understand it, this was a stock saying by a character in a comic strip Goldberg drew. The phrase became very popular, and Goldberg elaborated it over time. He was even co-author of a song entitled “I’m the Guy” [from 1912], whose lyrics were largely comprised of variations on this catchphrase.

  2. Yes, if you follow the link in Ben Zimmer’s post you find that the quote supposedly about TAD Dorgan is actually from a paragraph about Goldberg.

  3. michael farris says:

    A favorite example of mine was … well let’s let wikipedia tell us about it:
    “In 1979 … she (Carlene Carter) introduced a song … by stating, “If this song don’t put the c–t back in country, I don’t know what will.” Johnny Cash and June Carter were in the audience, unknown to Carlene. The comment was quoted widely in the press, and Carter spent much of the next decade trying to live it down.”

  4. I am sorry for posting here, but I can not comment to KHATUL MADAN post of August 21, 2010.
    I would like to let you know that LUKOMORYE PICTURES produced a cartoon where the beginning of Pushkin’s Ruslan i Lyudmila is read in 25 languages.
    Here is the English version:
    http://www.luko-morie.ru/ru/index.html#toon=2Item=14

  5. Thanks, Treesong and Ian, I’ve emended the post. Mea culpa for not following Ben’s link!

  6. My apologies for misreading the bit about Goldberg and ascribing it to Dorgan. I had seen the Perelman piece about Dorgan and made a faulty assumption. So perhaps Perelman was misremembering this, and giving Dorgan undue credit for the gag phrase (much as he’s been given undue credit for hot dog)? In any case, thanks to Treesong and Ian for setting me straight.

  7. And here‘s the sheet music for Goldberg’s “I’m the Guy.” It doesn’t have “put the pep in pepper” or any other “X in AXB” form, so it’s still an open question how the general Goldbergian boast got narrowed to the more punnish version.

  8. Sorry, the song has “In the wishbone, I’m the guy who put the wish,” which fits the pattern. And Goldberg’s cartoons would no doubt reveal others.

  9. And on the page linked by Treesong, you can find many “X in AXB” examples attributed to Goldberg appearing on pinback buttons, but it’s unclear to me when those buttons first began to appear — presumably in 1912 when the song became a hit?

  10. Though I write, I’m always in over my head here, now struggling with not one but two terms mysterious: so….is snowclone a subset of meme?
    And is “lowering corporate taxes will increase jobs” either one??

  11. I’d say a snowclone is a special type of “template” cliché, and a cliché could be regarded as a type of meme, but “lowering corporate taxes will increase jobs” is none of those things – it’s a non sequiter.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    You could perhaps call it a “mantra” because it is repeated so often, as a truth not to be debated, but that is not a linguistic characterization.

Speak Your Mind

*