Tuesday's New York Times crossword taught me something. The clue for 15-Across: “A ____ bagatelle!” I had the answer, MERE, but the words together made no sense to me. And I was puzzled: isn’t the expression “a mere bag of shells”? I’ve known that expression forever, from the television series The Honeymooners. It’s one of Ralph Kramden’s favorites, along with “Baby, you’re the greatest” and “Bang, zoom.”
The Times Crossword Blog helps out:
Bagatelle is a great word (French from Italian) that can mean a trifle, a billiardslike game or a short, light piece of music. In 1827, Alessandro Manzoni used the phrase “una piccola bagattella,” translated to “a mere bagatelle,” in his widely read novel, The Betrothed.Aha. Ralph’s catchphrase, like Ed Norton’s poloponies for polo ponies, is a mistake, meant, I assume, to be recognized as such. It’s Ralph trying to appear blasé and looking instead slightly ridiculous. Still, I like “a mere bag of shells.” Suggesting brown paper and peanuts and street vendors, it fits the Kramden world well.
Why, you may ask, was Norton talking about polo ponies? He was reading a script while rehearsing a play for the Raccoon Lodge: “I don’t possess a mansion, a villa in France, a yacht, or a string of poloponies.”
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