Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Mon Dec 18 11:37:18 UTC 2006

Thanks. The Dec. 9, 1929 NYC recording of Clara Smith singing "Oh! Mister
Mitchell" by Spencer Williams, James P. Johnson on piano, is available online

Was the song earlier published, copyrighted, performed, or mentioned? If so,
when? Might it have been performed in NYC earlier where O'Hara and Wolfe may
have got the word? I haven't found long biographies of Smith or Williams, but,
speaking of French, Williams was in Paris with Josephine Baker for part of the
'twenties. Maybe he needed a rhyme for whang. Yes, iffy, maybe. Of the three
earliest so-far known cites, I imagine the others getting it from the song more
plausible than other options (except, perhaps, earlier unknown use). I haven't
seen the O'Hara letter yet, to see if context and addressee add anything.

OED online "poontang, n." reads "slang (orig. and chiefly U.S. in
African-American usage)," but then, in Etymology, continues, "[Origin uncertain;
perh. < French putain prostitute (see PUTAIN n.).
  The word does not appear to have originated in African-American use.[...]"
What gives?

Here's a longer selection from OED's 1947 cite [my elipses]: "Poley...saw a
pretty Negro girl...."Eye that poon tang there,' he said. 'I could eat it with
a knife and fork. Where I come from we call that kind of stuff--table pussy.'"

At least one of Wolfe's 1929 (or earlier) uses, "Poon-Tang Picnic in
Niggertown," like the song, follows the (earlier) Jelly-Roll-type food analogy.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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