Question: Big C, cancer, and John Wayne

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Dec 27 18:16:43 UTC 2013

Perhaps some list members (and/or Barry) would be willing to explore
the following interesting question about the term "Big C" received via
a tweet request. (My ability to perform research right now is
limited.) A BBC website article is linked in the tweet below.

[Begin tweet]
Richard Evans @RichardJaEvans
@QuoteResearch Do you happen to know whether John Wayne really did
coin the term "Big C" to describe cancer (see )?
[End tweet]

The Oxford English Dictionary has “Big C” for cancer with a first
citation in 1967 (“Big C” for cocaine occurs earlier).

[Begin excerpt]
big C n. orig. U.S.  (a) slang cocaine;  (b) colloq. (euphem.) (usu.
with the) cancer.

1959   J. E. Schmidt Narcotics Lingo & Lore 16   Big C, cocaine as a
drug used by addicts.
1967   W. Murray Sweet Ride vii. 99   ‘He's had a lung removed.’ ‘The
Big C?’ ‘Yes.’
1984   H. D. Weaver Confronting Big C ii. 22   He is no longer afraid;
he knows it is possible to conquer ‘the big C’
[End excerpt]

Here are four citations from GenealogyBank (the only database I
searched). Apparently, the term “Big C” was being used before John
Wayne employed it.

Date: June 17, 1963
Paper: Cleveland Plain Dealer
Article: New Attitude on Mental Ills
Author: Howard Preston
Quote Page: 17
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
[Begin excerpt]
Spurred by the American Cancer Society, no longer do we consider
cancer to be taboo and we can say the word outright without whispering
"Big C."
[End excerpt]

Date: January 4, 1964
Paper: Boston Record American
Article: Drum Beat: One Grade A 50-Karat Man
Author: Bill Duncliffe
Quote Page: 21
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
[Begin excerpt]
If you remember, we said that George had been hit with cancer twice,
had beaten it twice, and was again feeling poorly. We called him the
toughest man alive, and any man who's licked Big C twice deserves a
rating like that.
[End excerpt]

Date: May 23, 1964
Paper: Rockford Register-Republic
Article: Tough Competitor Fights It: Big 'C' Usually Wins
Author: Bill Gleason in Chicago's American
Quote Page 6A
Location: Rockford, Illinois
[Begin excerpt]
We all know about Hutch, a large and sometimes violent man who manages
the Cincinnati Reds. We read last winter that he had Big "C". You may
not have thought about it just this way, but it long has seemed to me
that cancer is the class disease.
[End excerpt]

Date: December 30, 1964
Paper: Aberdeen Daily News
Article: John Wayne Licks the Great Killer
Quote Page: 1
Location:Aberdeen, South Dakota
[Begin excerpt]
Movie hero John Wayne ... says he now has conquered the great killer—cancer
"I licked the Big C," the all-time movie boxoffice king grinned Tuesday.
[End excerpt]


The American Dialect Society -

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