October 20, 2014

Spiro Agnew vs. the “effete intellectuals” and “nattering nabobs”…

Nowadays, Conservative Republican provocateurs like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter get lots of media attention for coming up with snarky quotable insults aimed at Liberals.

But the way was paved for them decades ago by Republican politician Spiro Agnew (1918-1996), the former Governor of Maryland who became Vice President of the United States under President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

Agnew unleashed one of his most famous zingers on October 19, 1969. He was speaking that day at a Republican fund-raising dinner in New Orleans.

Four days earlier, opponents of the Vietnam War had organized a major anti-war demonstration, the October 15th Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in moratorium events in the United States and Europe.

Agnew was a staunch defender of the Vietnam War, so naturally he had to take a swipe at the protesters.

He characterized them as people who “overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants.”

He went on (and on and on) to say:

“Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated in a contemporary antagonism known as ‘The Generation Gap.’ A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” 

Other Conservatives and the press especially loved that last sentence. And, soon, the pithy core of it was compressed into the phrases still used today: “effete intellectual snobs” and the shorter version “effete intellectuals.”

Spiro generated a number of other catchy, insulting names for Liberals during his four years as Vice President. Two others that are still cited are “the nattering nabobs of negativism” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” 

His pioneering verbal attacks made him a darling of the right until 1973, when his past caught with him. That year, he was charged with taking bribes and evading taxes during his tenure as Governor of Maryland.

He resigned as Vice President on October 10, 1973, as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time.

It was quite a scandal at the time. But, hey – at least Spiro Agnew wasn’t taking any of them psycho-delic drugs or acting like a damn effete intellectual.

Though I do think he might have qualified as a nattering nabob.

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Related reading…

October 15, 2014

We’re still hearing that “giant sucking sound”

On most days, if you do a Google news search on “giant sucking sound” you’ll usually find that phrase used in a number of recent news-related stories and blog posts, even though many people today are unaware of its origin or original context.

Although it was first used in an economic and political context, “giant sucking sound” now seems to be used in references to all types of things.

For example, a recent story by journalist Madeleine Thomas on the Grist.com environmental news site opened with the line: “That giant sucking sound you hear on the West Coast these days is the state of California, hoovering up as much renewable energy as neighboring states can produce.”

I suspect that many readers of Grist.com may not know that American businessman Ross Perot coined the phrase “a giant sucking sound” or when he coined it or what he was talking about.

In fact, I suspect many people in general, especially those under the age of 40, aren’t aware of the famous quotation that firmly planted the phrase in our language.

So then why, if most people aren’t aware of it, do I call it a famous quotation?

Well, basically because I think the term “famous quotation” is best applied to quotes that are cited or include lines or phrases that remain familiar for more than a short period of time, even if the exact origin is unknown to most people.

On the flip side, familiarity for a limited period of time does not make a quote worthy of being called famous.

One of my favorite quote mavens, Nigel Rees, has pointedly criticized the tendency of some modern quotation reference books, such as the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, to elevate things like pop song lyrics to the level of other truly famous quotes simply because they are widely known at the time when the book was published.

“Remember the dreadful example of the 1999 edition of the Oxford DQ, stuffing in remarks and supposedly quotable lyrics from the Spice Girls?” Rees wrote in an issue of his great “Quote...Unquote” newsletter. “What a surprise that they have mostly gone from the most recent edition.”

Do you remember those Spice Girls quotes? I don’t. That’s Nigel’s point. Quotes and phrases that have a short shelf life are not really “famous quotes.”

They may be heard and repeated for a year or so, or even for a few years, but they do not have real longevity in our language and culture. Thus, in Nigel’s view (and mine) they don’t qualify as famous quotations.

Scholarly quotation reference books like Bartlett's Familiar Quotations usually include many historical and literary quotes that are not actually familiar to most people, along with the truly famous quotations that are.

These less familiar quotes may be worthy bits of wisdom or wit, or worth knowing for the purpose of cultural literacy. But they are not necessarily “famous quotations.”

My own working definition of a famous quotation is a quote that is both widely known and which has had, or is clearly likely to have, a long life in our language – as a result of being frequently and widely cited, quoted, misquoted, adapted, recycled and/or repurposed.

I think the phrase “a giant sucking sound,” which began it’s journey to becoming a famous quotation on October 15, 1992, is a good example.

On that night, Independent candidate Ross Perot appeared in a televised presidential debate with Republican President George H. W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

During the debate, Perot made this prediction about the effects of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA):

“If you're paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory south of the border, pay $1 an hour for your labor, have no health care, have no environmental controls, no pollution controls and no retirement, and you don't care for anything but making money, then there will be a giant sucking sound going south.”

His prediction was included in hundreds of news reports about the presidential debate. Probably thousands. The catchy phrase “a giant sucking sound” that was embedded in it quickly gained what turned out to be long-lasting fame.

Perot’s entire sentence did not become well known, but “giant sucking sound” did and it continues to be used and repurposed today on a regular basis.

So, in my book (metaphorically speaking), and on my quotation blogs, Perot’s original use of it qualifies as “a famous quotation.”

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Comments? Corrections? Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

Related reading…

October 11, 2014

“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” (and finger-eating wolverines)

On October 11, 1975, at 11:30pm Eastern Time, a new TV comedy show debuted on the NBC network.

It opened with a wacky skit featuring three comic actors who were virtually unknown at the time.

In the skit, a frumpy-looking East European immigrant with a heavy accent is being tutored on how to speak proper English by a well-dressed teacher.

They are sitting in comfortable chairs next to each other in a small room.

The teacher starts a repeat-after-me type lesson with an unusual language exercise about wolverines…

       TEACHER: “Let us begin. Repeat after me. I would like...”

       IMMIGRANT: (With a noticeable accent.) “I wude like...”

       TEACHER: “...to feed your fingertips...”

       IMMIGRANT: “...to feed yur fingerteeps...”

       TEACHER: “...to the wolverines.”

       IMMIGRANT: “...to de woolvur-eenes.”

After a couple more odd exercises about wolverines and badgers (or, “woolvur-eenes” and “bed-jurs” as the immigrant pronounces them), the teacher suddenly gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the floor, apparently dead from a heart attack.

The European immigrant looks confused for a moment.

Then he gasps, clutches his chest and falls to the floor, copying the professor.

Next, a Stage Manager walks into the scene, smiles into the camera and says, for the very first time, what would soon be a well-known line:

       “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

The three not-yet-famous comedians in the skit were: John Belushi a former Second City improv performer who went on to become one of the most beloved comic actors in the world prior to his tragic death in 1982 from an apparent drug overdose; Michael O'Donoghue, a former National Lampoon magazine writer picked as head writer for the new show (who died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1994 at age 54); and, the fortunately still living comic legend, Chevy Chase, who was best known at the time as a cast member of the National Lampoon Radio Hour.

All three were among the amazingly talented group of original cast members of the show, which was officially titled NBC’s Saturday Night when it started airing in 1975, but soon came to be called Saturday Night Live, or SNL for short.

The revolving, evolving group of comic actors who performed comedy sketches on NBC’s new Saturday Night series were collectively dubbed the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”

The voice heard after Chevy Chase on the historic first episode was that of longtime television show announcer Don Pardo, reading the names of the performers who would be appearing (a function he continued on SNL until his death in August 2014). The first host was my favorite curmudgeon, the great George Carlin (1937-2008).

I was watching the premiere of SNL that night and watched the show almost every weekend for nearly 20 years. Nowadays, I record the show on DVR and watch the opening long enough to hear the famed line “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”

I check out who the guest host and musical guest will be. Then I usually fast forward a lot, though skits that rarely strike me as funny as anything done by the early “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” I often have no idea who the guest hosts or musical performers are and don’t understand most of the jokes that include current pop culture references.

Yep, I’m nearly as old as John Belushi would have been if he’d survived his oversized lust for life and I’m nearly as much of a curmudgeon as George Carlin. I miss them both.

Of course, there are some things I do like about the modern world. For example, I can now rewatch old episodes of Saturday Night Live any time I want as streaming video on my iPad.

And whenever I get nostalgic and rewatch the opening skit that turned the lines “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines” and “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night” into catchphrases, it still cracks me up.

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Comments? Corrections? Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

Related viewing, reading and listening…

October 08, 2014

“The Famous Quotes of October 8th,” a short film script by Robert Deis…


An old, gray-haired man is sitting at one of the tables at an outdoor café in Key West, sipping Cuban coffee, reading the Key West Citizen newspaper.

A very beautiful young woman and extremely handsome young man sit down together at a table nearby.

They are wearing expensive-looking dark sunglasses and have an air of celebrity.

The old man notices a pretty waitress at the café point at the young man and hears her talking to another waitress.


“Who's that behind those Foster Grants?”

The old man recalls that question started out as an ad slogan for Foster Grant sunglasses. (According to the trademark filing for the slogan in the US trademark database, it was first used in commerce on October 8, 1959.)

The good-looking young man also overhears the waitress. He looks up at her, takes off his sunglasses, gives her a big, flirtatious grin and responds, slurring the words just enough to indicate that he’s somewhat drunk.


“I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
A Yankee Doodle, do or die;
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam,
Born on the Fourth of July.”

The old man remembers that those are lyrics from the song by George M. Cohan titled “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” (Written for the stage show Little Johnny Jones, which was first performed in Hartford, Connecticut on October 8, 1904.)

He wonders if the young man might be a Broadway star who is familiar with the famous musical or if, perhaps, he’s a movie star who has seen the classic 1942 film about Cohan, Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which James Cagney sings the song.

The young woman wearing the Foster Grants seems hurt that her male companion is flirting a bit too conspicuously with the pretty waitress. She leans over and speaks to him in a voice that’s low, but clearly intended to be loud enough for the waitress to overhear.


“Keep the home-fires burning.”

The old man hears her, too, and recalls that those words come from song that was popular during World War I. (Lyrics by Lena Guilbert Ford, music by Ivor Novello. First published as sheet music under the title “‘Till the Boys Come Home” on October 8, 1914, later retitled and better known as “Keep the Home-fires Burning.”)

The handsome young man frowns and seems annoyed that someone would try to rein in his behavior and tell him what to do. He pushes his chair back, stands up a bit unsteadily, and says in an angry tone.


“I am not a number – I am a free man!”

The old man is surprised to hear the young man quoting a line from a TV series he enjoyed in the late 1960s: The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. (The line was used in the opening segment of each episode starting with the show’s second episode, “The Chimes of Big Ben,” which originally aired in the UK on ITV on October 8, 1967.)

The angry young man stalks off, leaving the beautiful young woman in tears.

The older man feels sorry for her and recalls a line spoken by the character Puck in William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was entered into the Stationers’ Register (England’s early version of a Copyright Office) in London on October 8, 1600.

We hear what the old man is thinking as a voiceover.


“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”


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Comments? Corrections? Post them on my quotations Facebook group.

Related reading, listening and watching… 

October 06, 2014

Mae West was very good at being bad…

Mae West (1893-1980) was like Marilyn Monroe, Madonna and Dorothy Parker all combined in one package.

She was sensuous, smart and funny. She was a singer, actor, playwright and screenwriter – and a genius at generating and capitalizing on sex-related controversy.

Indeed, the first play she starred in on Broadway (which she also wrote under the pen name “Jane Mast,” produced and directed) was titled Sex (1926).

Sex scandalized the prudes and censors of the day, got Mae arrested for “obscenity” and made her one of the hottest and most sought after celebrities in the country.

She moved on from being a stage superstar in the Roaring Twenties to film superstardom in the Thirties.

Among her most famous and most quoted films was I’m No Angel, which was released in the U.S. on October 6, 1933.

It was West’s second hit film with Cary Grant as her leading man.

Their first film together, released earlier that year, was She Done Him Wrong.

In that one, Mae purred the famed line: “Why don't you come up sometime and see me?” – which is usually misquoted as “Why don't you come up and see me sometime?”

In I’m No Angel, West plays a man-hustling, lion-taming circus star, who likes to “find ‘em, fool ‘em and forget ‘em” – until she falls in love with Cary Grant.

You probably know some or all of Mae West’s most famous lines in I’m No Angel even if you haven’t seen it. The most quoted quips from the film include:

“I’ve been things and seen places.”

“Oh, Beulah...Peel me a grape.”

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”

“It’s not the men in your life that counts, it’s the life in your men.”

Near the end of I’m No Angel, West also gives a sly, self referential nod to her misquoted line from She Done Him Wrong by saying: “And don't forget. Come up and see me sometime.”

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to October 6:

“California, here I come, right back where I started from.” - The chorus of the well known song “California Here I Come” by Buddy de Sylva, Al Jolson and Joseph Meyer. It was introduced in Jolson’s musical show Bombo, which opened in New York City on October 6, 1921.

“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.” - President Gerald Ford’s infamous flub in his October 6, 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, which made him seem unaware of the Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.

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Related reading, viewing and listening…

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