Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Words in movies

Four words, in one movie, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (dir. Frank Capra, 1936).

The first word is pixilated, which two elderly residents of Mandrake Falls, Vermont, agree describes Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) — and everyone else in Mandrake Falls, Vermont, except themselves. The Oxford English Dictionary definition:

Chiefly U.S. regional. Slightly crazed; bewildered, confused; fey, whimsical; (also) intoxicated.
In the movie a psychiatrist explains:
“The word pixilated is an early American expression derived from the word pixies, meaning ‘elves.’ They would say ‘The pixies have got him,’ as we nowadays would say that a man is balmy.”
Or they might have said that the man was pixie-led. That’s a much older word in the OED. And now I’m thinking of Yeats’s “The Stolen Child.” Come away with us, you stupid human!

Five years after the movie, the folklorist Fannie Hardy Eckstorm wrote about pixilated:
The word pixilated had a nationwide vogue in 1936, following its use in the sound film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Most people probably thought of it as the clever coinage of a Hollywood scenarist; but the student of the local lore of New England knows that is is a well established old Marblehead [Massachusetts] word.

“‘Pixilated,’ a Marblehead Word,” American Speech) 16, no. 1 (1941).
The earliest citation Eckstorm offers (now the earliest in the OED) is from an 1848 campaign song for Zachary Taylor:
You’ll never find on any trip
That he’ll be pix-e-lated.
Three more words from Mr. Deeds: doodle (verb), doodling (noun), and doodler. Mr. Deeds explains that “everybody does something silly when they’re thinking” — playing the tuba, for instance, or filling in the o s on a printed page:
“Other people are doodlers. That’s a name we made up back home for people who make foolish designs on paper when they’re thinking. It’s called doodling. Almost everybody’s a doodler.”
For the verb, the OED has a first citation from a 1937 essay that references Capra’s film. The dictionary has nothing for doodler until 1960 (“Poetry is not the free unfettered self-expression of the doodler”), but there it is, in Mr. Deeds’s mouth, back in 1936.

The word missing from Deeds’s explanation: the noun doodle, which the OED defines as “an aimless scrawl made by a person while his mind is more or less otherwise applied.” As for etymology: “compare Low German dudeltopf, -dop, simpleton, noodle, lit. night-cap.”

And — hokey smokes! — the dictionary’s first citation for the noun doodle is from Russell M. Arundel, Everybody’s Pixillated (1937):
“Doodle” is a scribbling or sketch made while the conscious mind is concerned with matters wholely unrelated to the scribbling.
Arundel’s title makes clear that Mr. Deeds Goes to Town did indeed bring doodle into common use.

But wait — there’s more: from Life, May 24, 1937, a two-page spread of doodles.

[Arundel was quite a character.]

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