Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A mere bag of poloponies

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.”

A related post
More on “bagatelle,” “bag of shells” (An old, old joke)

comments: 5

Pete said...

I have to admire a guy who is so well-versed in the Honeymooners, after all these years.

Michael Leddy said...

Well, thanks! I grew up watching the show on WPIX, Channel Eleven. By the time I was in college, I must have seen each episode several dozen times. Now I have those thirty-nine episodes on DVD.

Elaine said...

Catching up on your blog.... I had never heard of the "mere bag of shells" bit, though I am very familiar with "a mere bagatelle," and have played my share on piano and clarinet. This is funny! The joke is plain, just new to me. ("The Honeymooners" was never viewed at our house; my folks disliked Jackie Gleason.) Lacunae....

Michael Leddy said...

Lacunae I Have Known: that’d be a good title for my life story.

Unknown said...

Afer playing my share of bagatelles on the piano, I suspected that Kramden's "bag of shells" was a meant to be a joke. After explaining this to quite a few friends over the years, only to be met with the sound of crickets, I'm glad that someone else can corroborate my conclusions! It's bagatelle, not bag of shells!