[Ads-l] Antedating "Zilch" (1954) and "Joe Zilch" (1922) and the original "Joe Zilch" identified

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sat Aug 28 02:30:09 EDT 2021


Great work, Peter. The July 1954 cite for "zilch" = 'zero, nothing' locates
the usage in the Maryland Air National Guard. Here's a cite from later that
year that identifies it as Air Force slang:

---
https://books.google.com/books?id=I1jdZ3m2uFgC&pg=RA11-PA35
_Air Force: The Magazine of American Airpower_, Sept. 1954, p. 125
"Where the Air Force Gets Its Slang" by T/Sgt. Bill Wallrich
His language rapidly becomes interlarded with such terms as "skosh" for
small or little; "T-bird" for T-33 jet trainer; and "zilch" ("He shows me
zilch") for nothing.
---

Green's Dictionary of Slang suggests the "zero" meaning can be found
in Berrey & Van den Bark's _American Thesaurus of Slang_ (1942), but as the
OED3 entry indicates, that work only defines "zilch" as "an imaginary wind
instrument." The earliest OED3 cite for this sense comes from 1925, with
the spelling "Zilsch."

Not sure how the "imaginary musical instrument" sense of "zil(s)ch" might
play into the word's semantic evolution. The 1925 cite is in a Providence
(R.I.) Sunday Journal article about college slang that uses the purported
"musical instrument" sense to explain the origin of the name "Joe
Zil(s)ch." It's possible that Berrey & Van den Bark based their "zilch"
definition on this article. The databases have articles in other newspapers
from 1925 that repeat the Providence Journal information, like this one:

https://www.newspapers.com/clip/84276978/zilsch/

...but I don't see this meaning attested beyond that, so it might be a bit
of a red herring.

--bgz


On Fri, Aug 27, 2021 at 10:04 PM Peter Reitan <pjreitan at hotmail.com> wrote:

> If anyone is interested, I have posted a draft of my piece on the origin
> of "Zilch."
>
>
> https://esnpc.blogspot.com/2021/08/frank-tinney-ida-may-chadwick-and.html
>
>
> ------ Original Message ------
> From: "Peter Reitan" <pjreitan at hotmail.com>
> To: "American Dialect Society" <ADS-L at listserv.uga.edu>
> Sent: 8/26/2021 6:08:09 PM
> Subject: Antedating "Zilch" (1954) and "Joe Zilch" (1922) and the
> original "Joe Zilch" identified
>
> >Etymonline.com has "zilch," meaning zero or nothing, from 1957.
> >
> >Antedated to 1954.
> >Baltimore Evening Sun, July 5, 1954, page 27.
> >[Excerpt] The latest okay slang word among sports in the Maryland Air
> >National Guard is "zilch," which means "nothing."[End excerpt]
> >
> >I saw a reference from 1950 referring to the word "Zilch" (capitalized)
> >as slang, but the meaning is not given.  It may be a reference to the
> >earlier usage of "Joe Zilch," as a placeholder name or generic person
> >like John Doe, Joe Blow or John Q. Public.
> >
> >It is well known that "Joe Zilch" dates to at least the first issue of
> >Ballyhoo Magazine in 1931.
> >
> >Etymonline, without giving any citation to a reference, suggests that
> >the usage may date to as early as 1922, as "college or theater slang."
> >They were right about 1922, but not about its being college or theater
> >slang, or at least not initially.
> >
> >Walter Winchell wrote a regular feature called "Joe Zilch's Diary" that
> >first appeared in Variety in 1926, but which may have been used earlier
> >in his New York Evening Graphic column, that I have not seen.  The
> >first time it appears in variety, they mention that he has been writing
> >the column previously, but without saying how early.
> >
> >Another columnist in Variety used the name "Joe Zilch" as a placeholder
> >in 1925.
> >
> >A columnist called Nunnally Johnson used the name regularly in the
> >Brooklyn Daily Eagle beginning as early as December 30, 1923.
> >
> >Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 30, 1923, page 5.
> >[Excerpt]The prize [(the Bok Peace Prize)] is going to be awarded to
> >Joseph Zilch of 456 Mermaid ave., Fond du Lac., Wis., who will tell a
> >reporter for the Fond du Lac Tribune that he is a home boy; that he
> >entered the contest only because some of his friends were insistent . .
> >. .[End excerpt]
> >
> >A month later, Joseph Zilch's address is given as 42 Palmetto Street,
> >BAton Rough, Louisiana.  A few days later, Joseph Zilch is the manager
> >of a grocery store on Pearl Street.  A day later, he's a well known
> >"commentator on Congressional actions" from Girard, Alabama.
> >
> >
> >All of those uses appear to have borrowed the name from a vaudevillian
> >name Frank Tinney, who is known to have used the name in an Arthur
> >Hammerstein show called "Daffy Dill" in 1922.  The name and detailed
> >description of the bit it was used in in that show were published in
> >reviews of the show.  Tinney was apparently known to have regularly
> >used the name previous to that show, as the name of characters he
> >referred to on stage, but who never appeared on stage.
> >
> >Several years after "Daffy Dill," some entertainment reporters were
> >apparently aware that Frank Tinney had taken the name from a man named
> >Joseph Zilch, who was the husband of a woman named Ida May Chadwick,
> >the "champion woman buck and wing dancer of the world."  Decades later,
> >when Joseph Zilch died, his obituary in his hometown newspaper wrote
> >about his reputation as the man who inspired the expression, "Joe
> >Zilch," and gave a description of the circumstances in which it
> >happened.  His family claimed it happened in the Chestnut Theater in
> >Philadelphia when his wife (and perhaps he) were appearing on the same
> >bill as Tinney.
> >
> >That claim is consistent with the historical record.  In 1919, Tinney
> >appeared in an Arthur Hammerstein show called, "Some Time," and Ida May
> >Chadwick was in the cast.  (Tinney took over the role for the touring
> >company from Ed Wynn, who had played the role on Broadway.)  They did a
> >several week stand at the Chestnut Theater in Philadelphia.  She and
> >her husband lived across the river in Camden, so he may have been there
> >as well.  He was a car, truck and automotive parts salesman in Camden,
> >reportedly opening his own business there in about 1918, after having
> >worked in Philadelphia in the same line of business for about a decade.
> >
> >But he was also a sometime, small-time vaudevillian - there is an item
> >about Joe Zilch joining the Chadwick Trio (his wife's act with her
> >parents) in 1913.  An item in a Camden newspaper reports about their
> >7th anniversary in 1920, so the dates of their getting together align
> >with their anniversary.
> >
> >In any case, the circumstances described in 1953 align with the actual
> >circumstances in 1919.  The stories suggest Tinney used the name "Joe
> >Zilch" in an ad-lib, people laughed, and he kept the bit, or something
> >like it, in his act.
> >
> >In 1922, in the show "Daffy Dill," "Joseph Zilch" is the name of a dead
> >man.  His widow strikes up a conversation with the coachman on the way
> >home from the funeral.  The coachman recognizes the name "Joseph Zilch"
> >as the name of the man who stole his first love away from him.  She
> >recognizes the coachman as her first love - and they reunite.
> >
> >New York Times, August 27, 1922, section 6 (Drama, Music, Fashion),
> >page 1.
> >[Excerpt]But the high peak of the evening is when he comes on with
> >Marion Sunshine and sings the sad romance of “The Coachman and the
> >Widow.” This sweet ballad has a rather involved scenario about a widow
> >who is driving away from the burial services of her husband (the late
> >Joseph Zilch) when, in the coachman she recognizes an old sweetheart of
> >hers.[End Excerpt]
> >
> >The Tampa Tribune, September 28, 1924, page 13.
> >[Excerpt] TINNEY (the Coachman): “Joseph Zilch?  He was my boyhood
> >friend, but he stole from me the woman to who I was bequeathed to.
> >Tell me, what did Joseph die from?
> >THE WIDDER: “It was a wreck.  In going, he left me penniless.  I didn’t
> >know what I was going to do until I met you just now.  Silas, you loved
> >me once – ”
> >TINNEY: “I do love you still, Imogene Merriweather.  Here, here, hear
> >what I have to say. (Plucking chrysanthemum.) Take this begonia.  And
> >never let it be said that a coachman did not treat you – hansom.”[End
> >Excerpt]
> >
> >
> >New York Times, August 27, 1922, section 6 (Drama, Music, Fashion),
> >page 1.
> >[Excerpt]“Oh, give me back my husband,”
> >   The wretched widow cried,
> >As from her carriage window
> >   She stuck her head outside.
> >“Whoa!” yelled the coachman,
> >   And stopped his horses fleet,
> >And with these words consoled her,
> >   As he lit down from his seat:
> >
> >REFRAIN.
> >“Driving down the avenue
> >   In my horse and carriage,
> >Sometimes to a funeral,
> >   Sometimes to a marriage.
> >Sounds of laugher, sounds of tears
> >   Mix with the noise of the wheels.
> >Although I am only a coachman
> >  I know how a broken heart feels!”[End Excerpt]
> >
>
>

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