Flips & gasmeters

George Thompson gt1 at NYU.EDU
Fri Mar 9 22:22:42 UTC 2001

        This topic has gone off in a number of directions.  Some

        As regards attempts to make sense out of Slim Gaillard's songs
in "Chinese", "Yiddish" and so forth.  A large part of his act was
making up nonsense songs; he had a big hit with a song called "Flat
Fleet Floogie with a Floy Floy."  I think it can be assumed that these
songs purporting to be in Chinese or whatever are a part of this, and he
was merely attempting to capture some of the rhythms and tones of a
foreign speech, as heard by a non- speaker.  There may be a word of two
which is recognizable, or seems to be, but I think it will take a
pathological level of ingenuity to achieve a translation of the whole.
This may also have been a standard vaudeville act at the time.  At
least, I remember hearing Buddy Hackett on the Carson (?) Show give an
impression of a Chinese waiter.  As for this humor being heavy- handed:
to be sure it is, but what is to be done?  We are enlightened, and our
forebearers were not.  Dialect humor was very wide-spread in vaudeville
and radio, and even in early television.  I very vaguely remember a
show, originally on radio, but I think it assayed a try at television,
called "Can You Top This?"  This was a panel show of comedians; one
would tell a joke, and the others would try to tell one that got a
bigger laugh.  I recall one of the performers to have been Harry (?)
Hershfeld, who did Jewish dialect, and another to have been Peter
Donald, who did more than one dialect.  Some of these people worked in
the dialect of their parents, while others, like Chico Marx or Gosden
and Correll (Amos & Andy), did not.  I think that by the mid 1950s this
sort of act was coming under criticism.  I well remember seeing Myron
Cohen on the Ed Sullivan Show being introduced to great applause and
then using the first minute of the few allotted to him to apologize for
the fact that he was about to tell a joke in dialect, assuring us that
it was the dialect spoken by his beloved mother, who was a sweet and
wonderful lady, just like the mothers of all of you out there, and so
forth.  This despite the facts that he had appeared on the show many
times, hence the warm applause, and was well known to make his career
performing in the Borscht Belt telling dialect jokes to Jewish
audiences.  But evidently sniping at this sort of humor as insensitive
and derogatory had reached a level by about 1956 or 57 that he felt
obliged to (or was obliged by the producers to) go into an elaborate
        By the way, just to complicate the question of what linguists
should call themselves: I believe that there was a word for performers
who specialized in dialects: either dialectician — I believe that this
is it — or dialectologist.  Don Wilmeth, The Language of American
Popular Entertainment: A Glossary, Greenwood Pr, 1981, doesn't help me.
 MW's 3rd says a dialectician is a philosopher adept in dialectics,
which is not quite what I have in mind.

        As for the value of money in +/- 1940.  There is a frequently
reproduced photograph by Berenice Abbott of The Blossom Restaurant, 103
The Bowery, taken in 1935.  The window is covered with lists of platters
served and their prices: 3 lage pork chops, 30~ (please take ~ as the
symbol for cents, which is not available to me); roast loin of pork
roast, roast fresh ham and others, all 25~; lamb or mutton chops,
hungarian goulash and corned beef and cabbage (are ye there, Jiggs?),
&c. 20~; potted veal chop, pork tenderloin and breast of lamb, &c., 15~.
 This joint does not look like a place that would offer such a varied
menu or the sort of cooking skill some of these dishes would seem to
require.  Next door is a barber shop, offering a shave with bay rum and
hot towel for 10~, and a "single haircut" for 20~.  This is a unisex
barber, by the way: a "ladies hairbob" was 30~.  The caption to the
photo notes that the hotel above the restaurant charged 30~ a night,
though this is not visible.  Berenice Abbott, New York in the Thirties,
Dover Publ., 1973, plate #31.

        Then, we have also strayed into the nomenclature of coins.  Here
I will note that a NYC paper reported in 1829 that the cops in Philly
were looking for a villain, who "is supposed to be from New York, as he
talked of shillings and sixpences."  (Commercial Advertiser, January 21,
1829, p. 2, col. 3) Shillings (12 1/2~) were widely used in NYC as late
as the 1820s, and one frequently sees prices like 37 1/2~ (a quarter and
a shilling) or even 18 3/4~ (a shilling and sixpence).  Ten years
earlier, another villain had asked a die-sinker to cut a die for making
spanish dollars.  The diemaker called the cops and the villain was
arrested.  At his trial, his lawyer argued that it was not illegal to
counterfeit foreign money.  The judge replied that "the Spanish dollar
is by statute official currency in the United States" and sent the
crooked bastard to Greenwich Village (where the state pen was).  Nice
try by the lawyer, though.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African
Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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