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).
Another:


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?

comments: 4

Joe Clarke said...

Recently reading Edgar Allan Poe's humorous short story , The System of Professor Tarr & Mr Fether (1849) . This piece of fiction takes place at private sanitarium in France. The Doctor who runs the asylum uses the expression, "A mere bagatelle" and bagatelle is French to mean a "trifle" or small matter. I believe I heard this expression used by W.C.Fields, before Ralph Kramden used it. I think bag of shells is simply an english corruption of bagatelle.

Michael Leddy said...

I think we agree. My suspicion is that “bag of shells” began as a joke. The related post mentions that “a mere bagatelle” goes back to the early nineteenth century.

And yes, W. C. Fields said “a mere bagatelle.” Thanks for adding that. Maybe Ralph is meant to be recognized as imitating W. C. — and getting it wrong.

Donna Braginetz said...

I just watched a classic Honeymooners episode. The line "a mere bag of shells" jumped out at me, so I went online for a bit of research and clarification. Thanks so much for addressing this small matter -- I feel enriched!

Michael Leddy said...

I love when the message-in-a-bottle thing happens years after a post goes online. Thanks for letting me know this post was helpful.