6 Important Things You Won't Believe Were Invented in Comics
Comic strips are generally regarded as throwaway entertainment, largely because they exist in such a disposable medium. Most of them end up wrapped around fish or used as emergency toilet paper. Yet for all that, comics have contributed a surprising number of enduring words, phrases, and traditions to modern society. For instance ...
The Words "Goon" and "Jeep" Come from Popeye Comics
It turns out that if you've ever been cut off in traffic by some big goon in a jeep, you can lay it all at the feet of one man: Popeye's creator, Elzie Segar. Since the Venn diagram of low-level gang members, jeep owners, and comics historians probably isn't too well-populated, we're guessing that not many people know where those words really come from ... but that's what we're here for.
In 1933, Segar created Alice the Goon, a new villain for Popeye to punch while high on vegetables. Alice was a hulking monstrosity who served as enforcer for Popeye's enemy the Sea Hag, and in fact came from an entire race of Goons.
Their abundant pubic hair makes any type of clothing except hats redundant.
The word itself wasn't new: People had been "goons" as a synonym for "idiots" for decades, but Segar's character gave it a second, more sinister meaning. Since Alice the Goon was essentially a hired thug, by 1938, the word was being used in reference to hoodlums hired to break up unions, and that usage persisted -- to the point where today, when someone mentions a "goon squad," it's a cinch that they're talking about crooks, rather than morons.
The alternative "procurer of male prostitutes for sea witches" meaning never caught on.
But there's more. Three years after Alice first showed up, Segar introduced another bizarre character destined to expand the English language: Eugene the Jeep, a small critter that looks like an awkward-to-produce cross between a giraffe and a dog who can do things like teleport, walk through walls, climb on ceilings, and basically just tell the laws of physics to go fuck themselves.
It has many powers, not the least of which is having breast fingers.
Eugene the Jeep became a popular member of the highly successful comic strip and cartoons. When servicemen were introduced in 1941 to the new off-road vehicle that could seemingly go anywhere and do anything, they immediately began calling it a jeep, since such a thing seemed about as magical at the time as an omnipotent animal from a higher dimension. A couple of years later, the name was trademarked by an auto company, and it currently belongs to Chrysler.
So the next time someone tells you that jeep comes from "GP" or "general purpose," simply show them this video of R. Lee Ermey calling them morons and explaining what we just told you. That oughta shut them up.
"Yellow Journalism" Was Named After the Yellow Kid
Shitty sensational journalism is a proud hundred-year-old tradition. In fact, some experts pinpoint the exact moment when editors stopped giving a shit about truthful reporting to 1895, when William "Real-Life Citizen Kane" Hearst bought The New York Journal and started competing with Joseph "Winner of Zero Pulitzers" Pulitzer's New York World. The two newspaper magnates vigorously tried to outdo each other with more sensational reporting and less accuracy, probably because dick-measuring contests hadn't been invented yet.
One of the most prominent battles between the two papers (and the one that eventually came to define their whole style of journalism) arose from an unlikely source: The Yellow Kid, history's first successful comic strip character.
Featuring that winning combination of whimsy, racism, and child drunkenness.
Starring in the strip Hogan's Alley by R.F. Outcault, the Kid was a street urchin whose pidgin slang thoughts would inexplicably appear on the yellow nightgown he always wore. His massive popularity in the World did not go unnoticed by Hearst, who dickishly lured Outcault away by offering him his weight in $100 bills.
Undaunted, Pulitzer simply hired someone else to continue the strip in his own paper, meaning that for a while, there were two competing Yellow Kid comics running simultaneously. For comparison, that would be like if Bill Watterson had decided to only let certain newspapers carry Calvin & Hobbes and the other papers brought Garfield's Jim Davis in to do his own blander, shamelessly commercial version.
"He thinks the lasagna is alive. How droll."
As it happened, this fight was raging at a time when people were starting to criticize Hearst's and Pulitzer's shady practices. The editor of another New York newspaper, after trying and discarding the phrases "new journalism" and "nude journalism" as boring and factually inaccurate, respectively, settled on "yellow-kid journalism," later shortened to just "yellow journalism." And all because no one was willing to let go of that little jug-eared bastard. The phrase stuck, and we're still using it today to describe shitty rags that abuse alarmist headlines and exclamation marks.
As for the Kid, his popularity waned, and he languished in obscurity for a century, until Joss Whedon, of all people, revived him for a time-travel story in Marvel Comics' Runaways. And gave him superpowers, because obviously. We're looking forward to his inevitable cameo in the next Avengers movie.
Bruce Willis is already clearing his schedule.
One Cartoonist Came Up With the Phrases "For Crying Out Loud," "You Tell 'Em" and More
Sportswriter and comic strip pioneer Tad Dorgan is best known for something he probably didn't do: He's often credited with coining the name "hot dog" for a frankfurter while attending a 1901 baseball game, but it was most likely in existence before then. Clearly miffed about missing the boat on that one, Dorgan overcompensated by going on to invent pretty much every other piece of American slang for the next 20 years.
Dorgan, whose words-per-strip average was somewhere in the low hundreds, is credited with coining or popularizing terms like "hard-boiled," "For crying out loud," "You tell 'em," and "drugstore cowboy," among many others. Here's part of a 1919 strip that might be the first written use of the word "dumbbell" as an insult, as said by a talking dog with spectacles:
Can you feel the historical significance?
A lot of Dorgan's expressions are now outdated, of course -- you're probably not giving a "cake-eater" the "ol' 23 skidoo," or talking about how the movie you just saw was the "cat's pajamas" -- but at the time, they were so popular that one of his jokes, "Yes, we have no bananas," was made into a major hit song during the Roaring '20s.
More recently, Dorgan gained relevance again when Vice President Joe Biden said "That's a bunch of malarkey" on TV (since you apparently can't say "stinking heap of bullshit" in a live debate), thus sending thousands of viewers to the Internet to find out what the hell that is. If they dug deep enough, those people then found that it was Dorgan who first popularized the term in his Indoor Sports strip, although he originally spelled it as "malachy." Here's a detail from the strip:
Ironically, Joe Biden can throw a case of scotch 200 yards.
Who knows ... without Dorgan's contribution to American slang, Biden might have been forced to go with a ruder word or just break a chair on the other fellow.
"Are We Having Fun Yet?" Was First Said by Zippy the Pinhead
There's a pretty good chance that you have either been or punched the person who sarcastically asked "Are we having fun yet?" in the middle of a boring staff meeting, a long car ride, or intercourse. You may have seen the phrase on a Howard Johnson's napkin, or driven behind someone with it as their bumper sticker. Maybe you purchased one of the dozens of books with that title. Or perhaps you've read it in one of the many Garfield products that use it.
Wait, did anyone actually wear those pin-on buttons? Why do those exist?
But the phrase didn't come from some bored lasagna cat: You'll probably be shocked to learn that it came, quite literally, from the lips of a pinhead. In the 1970s, underground cartoonist Bill Griffith created Zippy, a bizarre character prone to spouting random non sequiturs. Since there's nothing John Q. Public likes more than struggling to comprehend his daily comic strip, it continues to run in newspapers to this day.
It was later, in 1979, that Zippy first uttered his famous catchphrase, which Griffith insists that he intended "in a kind of existential/despairing way," artist code for "I was tripping balls when I drew this."
"Six hits of acid in the morning OJ makes my whole world feel like this."
Soon "Are we having fun yet?" was plastered all over T-shirts, buttons, and other accessories, in addition to being non-ironically used in theme park ads and corporate slogans, but Griffith doesn't get a cent from most of it. Despite beating the odds and having a phrase from his once unknown underground comic catch fire, Griffith can't control its use, because you can't copyright a saying. Still, he claims not to mind ... except when other cartoonists use it. We guess if Garfield or freakin' Ziggy sold another ten thousand coffee mugs because of something we said, we'd be pretty pissed, too.
He was so upset, he forgot to make this strip incoherent.
Sadie Hawkins Day Was a Fake Holiday from Lil' Abner
For decades, Sadie Hawkins Day was that one day of the year when women were "allowed" to ask out men without being labeled as hussies by society, a tradition that continues to this day through the many middle schools and high schools in the U.S. and Canada that hold Sadie Hawkins dances every year. If you'd asked us to guess, we probably would have said that Sadie was a real girl who died in the 18th century during a tragic asking-a-boy-out incident, thus becoming a martyr for the feminist cause.
But nope, it turns out that the whole thing comes from a comic strip. Here's the "real" Sadie:
Snow White + Alfred E. Neuman = Sadie Hawkins
Al Capp's strip Li'l Abner, about a family of yokels in backwoods Kentucky, was incredibly popular in its day, spawning tons of merchandise and even an amusement park. It was so popular, in fact, that this completely made-up pseudo-holiday created for it eventually crossed over into the real world and became a real thing.
You see, in 1937, the strip introduced Sadie Hawkins, the homeliest spinster in town. Her father, tired of waiting for someone to take her off his hands, established Sadie Hawkins Day, in which all of the town's bachelors would congregate at a starting line and take off running. After a sporting head start, Sadie would chase after them, and whomever she caught would have to marry her.
And if he refused, they would sacrifice him to their dark lord, M'allejktor.
The storyline proved so popular that Capp made it an annual tradition for the rest of the strip's four-decade run, including a dance the night before where women trampled on men's feet to make them easier to catch. Yeah, this wasn't exactly the most progressive thing ever, but it did provide an excuse for the youngsters of the day to flip the bird to societal conventions -- only two years later, over 200 colleges and high schools in 188 cities had adopted Sadie Hawkins dances. At first, they even dressed up as characters from the strip in the spirit of the "holiday."
"Nope, totally not stoked about this!"
By 1952, Capp reported that he had received thousands of letters annually from high schools and sororities wanting to know when Sadie Hawkins Day would occur that year so they could plan accordingly, and the tradition continued to spread. Eventually they probably figured that they could drop the pretense and start letting people ask out whomever they wanted.
"Back to the Drawing Board" Comes from a New Yorker Cartoon
If you're the kind of person who frequently screws up at work because you got distracted by, say, accidentally browsing articles on comedy websites for eight hours instead of doing your job, then you've almost certainly uttered this sentence: "Back to the drawing board." The phrase is used whenever something goes wrong and you have to start from scratch.
What you might not know is that this phrase originated at a literal drawing board: that of New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, who was one of the magazine's most prolific and influential creators of silent-chuckle-worthy gags for over 40 years (although we bet his parents still told people that he was an architect or something). More specifically, the phrase came from the following cartoon that first appeared in the magazine in 1941:
He was also known for drawing pictures of puppies on fire while his cartoon likeness masturbated in the shadows.
The serious historical context just makes it funnier: Although America hadn't officially entered World War II at the time, the design and construction of new military aircraft was still a top priority, and the process most likely involved some trial and error. Arno made light of the situation by drawing a nerdy fellow with blueprints tucked under his arm jauntily walking away from a plane crash and remarking, "Well, back to the old drawing board." This attitude of persistence mixed with cheerful indifference obviously struck a chord with readers, and the phrase caught on quickly enough that, by 1947, it was being used in newspaper stories that had nothing to do with planes crashing.
Before that, Arno had already managed to coin another moderately popular saying with "This is a hell of a way to run a railroad," which he probably used as his personal catchphrase, regardless of context. In addition to all that, Arno was an accomplished attractive person who was rarely photographed without a beautiful woman on his arm.
Peter Arno. Also known as "Every male actor from every 1950s movie."
For more unusual origins, check out 6 Glitches That Accidentally Invented Modern Gaming and 5 Amazing Things Invented by Donald Duck (Seriously).
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out A Terrifying True Fable That Will Make You Never Lie Again.