Meretricious and a Happy New Year

Gore Vidal? Franklin P. Adams? George S. Kaufman? Mary Horan? Chico Marx? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is here, and I have a question about a pun. A critic once told Gore Vidal that one of his novels was meretricious and Gore pointedly replied:

Really? Well, meretricious and a happy New Year to you too!

This anecdote is set in the 1970s and when I read about it recently I was reminded of stories about the Algonquin Round Table. The group members used to play a game in which a word was selected and a participant was challenged to create a clever sentence using it. I think meretricious was one of the words chosen, and the result was the quip used by Gore Vidal many years later. Could you check into this?

Quote Investigator: The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, a top-notch reference that is enjoyable to browse, lists this anecdote of verbal jousting under the name of Gore Vidal. But the entry also mentions some instances of the pun as early as 1933 credited to The Marx Brothers and Franklin P. Adams [ODHM].

The earliest instance located by QI was published in December 1929 by the famous columnist Walter Winchell who referred to the sentence construction activity as a “parlor diversion.” Winchell presented two examples of puns which he attributed to the actress Mary Horan. The third example used meretricious, but the joke was not credited to a specific person.

The second earliest citation was published in December 1930. Once again Walter Winchell described the sentence construction activity as a “parlor pastime.” The example using meretricious was deemed “one of the cleverest”. Winchell mentioned several members of the Round Table: Alexander Woollcott, Franklin P. Adams, and Dorothy Parker, but he did not provide a name for the originator of the wordplay for meretricious in 1929 or 1930.

Twelve years later in 1942 Winchell credited the pun to the playwright and Round Table member George S. Kaufman. In 1945 a biographer of Alexander Woollcott assigned the joke to Franklin P. Adams. In modern times the wordplay is often attributed to Gore, Adams, and The Marx Brothers .

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Walter Winchell was a pioneering and influential gossip columnist. In December 1929 he wrote the following [WWPS]:

Among other parlor diversions of the so-called intelllgentlemen last year and the year before, was making up sentences with certain words. Mary Horan for example of the “Sons o’ Guns” show can make up a sentence with the word “endow” in this manner: “He’s crazy about me, endow!”

Or with “venom”—”Venom I gonna see you, again?”

But we prefer the sentence with the word “meretricious,” viz: “Meretricious and a Happy New Year!”

Explanatory details for the extensive wordplay in this post appear near the end of the article.

In December 1930 Winchell revisited this topic with a new collection of puns. Winchell referred to one punster by the initials F.P.A. This letter sequence typically designated the columnist Franklin P. Adams [WWA] [PWA]:

Making up sentences with certain words still remains one of the most amusing parlor pastimes. They were cleverly toying with puns again last night. The name of Sessue Hayakawa came up and someone remembered how Woollcott once used: “Hayakawa keep ‘em down on the farm?” And F.P.A. clowned with Theopholis, viz: “That was Theopholis book I ever read!”

Then this: “That was no lady. Arizona my wife!” And: “She drinks Anticipates terribly!” It was decided, too, that the most famous is “Sanctuary much for the buggy ride,” and that one of the cleverest contains the word Meretricious—like this: “Meretricious and a Happy New Year!”

However —  Dorothy Parker’s sentence with the word “congeal” is our favorite silly. Dorothy uses it this way: “Jack congeal went up the heel.”

In 1933 Groucho and Chico Marx were featured in a radio program called “Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel”. In March of 1933 a broadcast included a segment of dialog between a judge character and Chico. The judge asserted that his political opponents were “dishonest, grafting and meretricious” and Chico responded [FSCH] [FSCM]:

CHICO: Tank you, judge, and I wish you da same.
JUDGE: You wish me what?
CHICO: A meretricious. A meretricious and a happy new year!

In December 1933 the columnist Goetze Jeter employed the pun in his newspaper feature dated December 27th. He did not attribute the remark to anyone in particular [GJA]:

GERRY wonders if it’s too late to use the word “meretricious” this way:

“Well a Meretricious and a Happy New Year!!!”

In 1942 Walter Winchell discussed the wordplay in his column again, and this time he credited the humorist and playwright George S. Kaufman [WDA]:

Another remarked the best he ever heard was George S. Kaufman’s sentence containing meretricious, to wit: “Meretricious and a Happy New Year!”

Which was topped by Allan Meltzer, who punned with Shostakovitch, vis: “Shostakovitch small by a waterfall!”

In 1945 the anecdote and joke collector Bennett Cerf moved the punning game to a paradigmatic classroom setting. The student Willie replied to his teacher’s request to use Machiavelli in a sentence as follows [WTA]:

Little Willie’s hand was up in a flash. “My father,” he declared proudly, “can Machiavelli good pair of pants for $10.”

The class had hardly recovered from this blow when the teacher asked for a sentence containing the word meretricious. Willie — in fact, we might almost call him irrepressible Willie — was right back on his feet with, “I wish you a Meretricious and a Happy New Year.”

Also in 1945 a biography of Alexander Woollcott included the pun and credited it to F.P.A. [AWA]:

Half the wisecracks of the next ten years were attributed to the Algonquin. Here were conceived, by common but not too reliable rumor, Dorothy Parker’s quip: “If all the girls who attended the Yale Prom this year were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised”; Irvin Cobb’s epitaph for a beauty of notoriously general liaisons: Here lies Polly Simpkins: asleep — alone — at last”; Frank Adams’ example of a sentence embodying the word “meretricious”: “Meretricious ‘n Happy New Year”; …

The famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov told a story in his 1994 memoir about the influential magazine editor Horace Gold. A date for this anecdote was not given by Asimov, but Gold was the editor of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine from 1950 to 1961 and the incident probably occurred in that time frame [IAIA]:

He once, to my face, told me that a story of mine was meretricious. …

I controlled my annoyance and said innocently, “What was that word you used?”

Horace, proud of his vocabulary and delighted to have (as he thought) caught me out said haughtily, “Meretricious!”

“And a Happy New Year to you,” I responded. It was a silly remark, but it soothed my feelings, especially since it clearly enraged Horace.

Moving forward to the 1970s, Gore Vidal used the pun on the BBC radio program “Start the Week” according to the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. He was responding to a comment by Richard Adams that the novel “Lincoln” was meretricious. The reference also makes the following comment about prior citations [ODHM]:

Earlier uses of the response are attributed to Franklin P. Adams in the 1930s, and the NBC radio show starring the Marx Brothers, Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, in 1933.

In conclusion, the pun using meretricious was first described in two newspaper columns by Walter Winchell in 1929 and 1930. He mentioned the names of several participants in pun-based games including several members of the Algonquin Round Table. Yet, Winchell did not identify the originator of the meretricious wordplay in either column.

Winchell did credit George S. Kaufman more than a decade later. In addition, Chico Marx delivered the joke in a radio program in 1933. QI thanks you for your question and hopes you have a magnificent holiday season.

Here is some information about the wordplay in this post. Endow: “and how”; Venom: “when am”; Meretricious: “Merry Christmas”.

Hayakawa: “how you gonna”; Theopholis: “the awfulest”. The pun based on Arizona is more difficult to analyze. The following alternatives are possible: “that was only”, “her was only”, “there was only”, “it was only”. Anticipates: “and dissipates”; Sanctuary: “thank you very”; Meretricious: “Merry Christmas”; Congeal: “and Jill”.

Shostakovitch is often spelled without the “t”, and is a reference to the prominent Russian composer: Dmitri Shostakovich. The pun “Shostakovitch small by a waterfall” refers to the song “Just a Cottage Small (By a Waterfall)” by B. G. DeSylva and James Hanley. Machiavelli: “make you a very”.

Update History: On June 13, 2012 the citation for the Chico Marx dialog of March 1933 was added. On September 1, 2012 the Walter Winchell citation in 1929 was added to this article.

[ODHM] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Category: Insults and Invective, Page 173, Oxford University Press, New York. (Google Books preview; Verified on paper) link

[WWPS] 1929 December 30, The Post-Star, Walter Winchell: “On Broadway”, Page 4, Column 3, Glens Falls, New York. (Old Fulton)

[WWA] 1930 December 6, Wisconsin State Journal, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Page 3, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) (The initials F.P.A. were incorrectly given as E.P.A in this citation. The correct initials were given in the citation below for the same column a few days later.)

[PWA] 1930 December 10, Port Arthur News, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Page 4, Port Arthur, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

[FSCH] 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Meretricious, Page 281, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)

[FSCM] 1988, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel: The Marx Brothers’ Lost Radio Show, Edited by Michael Barson, [Five Start Theater Presents: Episode Number 16, March 13, 1933] Start Page 193, Quote Page 199, Pantheon Books, New York. (Verified on paper)

[GJA] 1933 December 27, Moberly Monitor, Around Town with Goetze Jeter, Page 4, Column 2, Moberly, Missouri. (NewspaperArchive)

[WDA] 1942 October 18, Waterloo Daily Courier, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Section 4, Page 25, Waterloo, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)

[WTA] 1945 November 14, Evening Tribune, “Try and Stop Me” by Bennett Cerf, Page 8, Column 1, Albert Lea, Minnesota. (NewspaperArchive)

[AWA] 1945, “A. Woollcott: His Life and His World” by Samuel Hopkins Adams, Pages 121-122, Reynal & Hitchcock, New York. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper) link

[IAIA] 1995, I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov, Chapter: 76 Anthony Boucher, Page 239-240, Bantam paperback, New York. [Paperback edition of 1994 Doubleday hardback] (Verified with Amazon Look Inside)

2 thoughts on “Meretricious and a Happy New Year

  1. John Cowan: Thanks for visiting and sharing a fun comment. I have now updated the article to include a version of the anecdote that appeared in Asimov’s memoir “I. Asimov”.

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