Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bagatelle, bag of shells

A few minutes in Google Books this morning let me know that the comic confusion of “bagatelle” and “bag of shells” long predates The Honeymooners. One example:

Matthew M. Colton, Frank Armstrong at College (New York: Hurst & Company, 1914).

James Madison, Madison’s Budget (Washington, DC: Department of Dramatic Activities Among the Soldiers, 1918).
Yes, Madison’s Budget is a minstrel show, and my guess is that this play on words has its origins in minstrelsy. Perhaps it went on to a later life in vaudeville. Perhaps Jackie Gleason heard it in childhood, or as a young man in show-business.

Would a mid-1950s Honeymooners audience have recognized Ralph Kramden’s “a mere bag of shells” as an old, old joke on “bagatelle”? Or were the shells just shells by then?

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