Monday, September 9, 2013

Space cadet

[Messrs. Kramden (Jackie Gleason) and Norton (Art Carney).]

I noticed a fascinating bit of language use in “TV or Not TV,” an episode of The Honeymooners that aired on October 1, 1955. Ralph and Norton have chipped in to buy a television. They disagree of course about what to watch. It’s been nothing but “space shows, westerns, cartoon frolics, and puppet shows,” Ralph says. Indeed, Norton has just been watching Captain Video and His Video Rangers. And Ralph wants to watch a movie. But Norton keeps changing the channel. And Ralph, in exasperation: “Look. Look, you . . . space cadet.”

The Oxford English Dictionary dates space cadet (“a trainee spaceman or spacewoman”) to 1948 and dates other meanings of the term (“a person regarded as out of touch with reality, esp. (as if) as a result of taking drugs; a person prone to flights of fancy or irrational or strange behaviour”) to 1973. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dates such meanings (“a flaky, lightheaded, or forgetful person”) to 1979. But here from 1955 is a use of space cadet that seems to convey such meanings perfectly. As Ralph points out again and again, Norton is a maniac, a nut. From “Something Fishy” (December 17, 1955): “The only thing out of order here is your head.”

But then again it may be my head that’s out of order, and that I’m hearing more in Ralph’s words than they could have meant in 1955. What complicates matters is another 1950s television series, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. In 1955, calling Norton a space cadet may have been no worse than calling him a Junior G-Man or a Mouseketeer. The insult might speak only to Norton’s delight in children’s fare, not to a lack of contact with reality.

Elaine wondered if this episode of The Honeymooners, playing through the years in reruns, might have kept space cadet alive as an insult and played a part in the term’s later meanings.

And now we blast off for Pluto and the moon.

Related reading
All Honeymooners posts (Pinboard)

[The trick by which Ralph gets the television in his apartment is always worth a try: “Head I win, tails you lose.”]

comments: 4

Adair said...

And there was the popular juvenile novel of that era, Space Cadet, by Robert Heinlein, on which Tom Corbett might have been based.

So many hilarious moments in The Honeymooners! Ralph as "Chef of the Future" can still crack me up.

Michael Leddy said...

Adair, you’ll be happy to know that Heinlein’s novel provides the first citation in the OED.

Oh, yes, it can core a apple.

Adair said...

Those Heinlein juveniles were so fascinating to me as a kid. In Space Cadet, the cadets eat 100-year-old pancakes from unspoiled mix found in a crashed spaceship. And in Rocket Ship Galileo, a few boys and their uncle decide to build a rocket to the Moon in the backyard, buying everything they need for the job (and a hamburger and malted milk apiece) at Sears Roebuck. I love it!

Michael Leddy said...

What a great mix of the present and the future. Adair, if you ever start a blog, I will be there reading.