he can't get arrested

Fri May 14 21:36:34 UTC 1999

        Leafing through a new novel earlier this week, I found the following

        Look at Emily Dickinson.  Because she wouldn't stop
for death, he kindly stopped for her.  Noby else ever did.  Alive she
couldn't get arrested.  Dead she's the Belle of Amherst.
        Benjamin Cheever.  Famous After Death: A Novel.  N. Y.: Crown Publ.,
1999, p. 72

        Some time ago I had check for this expression in the New York Times
electronic file, covering the 1990s, and found several occurences:

1991:   For years, "NBC couldn't get arrested on Saturday night, Mr.
Sagansky said.  New York Times, July 29, 1991, Section D, p. 6
(article "The Media Business: Networks Get the Saturday Night Blues."

1991:   In America, I can't get arrested, said Mr. Coleman
        New York Times, June 23, 1991, Section 2, p. 26  (article "Pop Music; The Return of
Jazz's Greatest Eccentric" [Ornette Coleman])

1997:   Phyllis Nagy, a native New York [sic] who, as she has admitted, can't get arrested here. . . .
        Vivian Gornick, "An American Exile in America," New York Times Magazine, March 2, 1997, p. 27ff.

        The expression signifies the someone is extremely unsuccessful, a
complete failure, so much so that no one wants to see him, not even
the police.

        It also appears in a popular song I heard many years ago -- several
decades, probably -- before I got systematic in my interest in words,
so that I did not note it at the time and now have to rely on my
memory.  The song was "You Ain't Got It No More" by Julia Lee, a very
popular singer of jump tunes, rather a female Louis Jordan, and was
released ca 1949 as a 78rpm record.  As I recall it, the phrase was
used as a sort of refrain oe interjection.  Pop tunes in the 30s and
40s were often cobbled up around some currently hip expression, and I
suppose that that the case here.  The song has been released recently
on Big Mamas (an anthology from Rosetta, 1982) and on Julia Lee,
Party Time (1982).  I have access to neither of these.  A German
record company has recently released the Opera Omnia of Julia Lee,
which I think the library here will buy, and I will check it when it
arrives.  Meanwhile, is anyone else familiar with the expression?

George A. Thompson

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