Sunday, July 13, 2008

Today's LITTLE NEMO-Related Item: The Whiffenpoof Song

Just found out this little factoid: The word "whiffenpoof" originated in the 1908 opera Little Nemo by Victor Herbert, based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay.

The word is not from the strip itself. "Whiffenpoof" was actually an ad-lib by an actor in the Little Nemo opera. The ad-lib remained, but The Whiffenpoof Song itself was yet in the future. Anyway, one of the people who was in the audience in 1908 was a fellow with the name of Goat Fowler, a student at Yale, who liked the nonsense word very much. From the Yale Web site:

It was Goat Fowler who suggested we call ourselves The Whiffenpoofs. He had been tickled by the patter of one of the characters in a Victor Herbert musical comedy called "Little Nemo" which recently been running on Broadway. In a scene in which there was great boasting of terrific exploits in big game hunting and fishing, comedian Joseph Cawthorne told a fantastic tale of how he had caught a Whiffenpoof fish. It seems that Cawthorn had coined the word some years before when he and a fellow actor were amusing themselves by making up nonsense verses. One they particularly liked began: "A drivaling grilyal yandled its flail, One day by a Whiffenpoof's grave." Cawthorn recalled the verse in making up his patter for "Little Nemo" and put it into his act.

Whether the word meant fish, flesh or fowl was irrelevant to our purpose when we chose it as our name. "Whiffenpoof" fitted in with our mood of free and exuberant fancy and it was adopted with enthusiasm. As Carl Lohmann later explained: "We were Whiffenpoofs because if your infuriated us with food and drink, we came up and squaked." The word quickly caught on with "our public," and the name stuck.

Here's the song:

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