Question: Big C, cancer, and John Wayne

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Fri Dec 27 18:48:55 UTC 2013

On Dec 27, 2013, at 1:25 PM, paul johnson wrote:

> In the 60's and 70's I clearly remember my older relatives whispering
> "he's got c"

I wonder about "playing the C card".  And "chemo brain" [not in OED].  (I learned both of these after being diagnosed in 2002, but I had the feeling they'd both been around for a while by then.)


> It wasn't Big c but it was whispered.
> On 12/27/2013 12:16 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:
>> 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]
>> Garson
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society -
> --
> Hippo gnu deer
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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