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September 14, 2015

“Have Gun - Will Travel” lives on (as a linguistic “snowclone” and via modern digital media)


Today, the linguistic formula “Have X [some work tool] - Will Y [do something]” is firmly cemented into our language.

Prior to 1957, it wasn’t.

Then, on September 14, 1957, the great Western TV series Have Gun - Will Travel premiered on the CBS network. (The first episode was titled “Three Bells to Perdido.”)

Soon after that, variations of the show’s title became what linguists now call a “snowclone.”

This term, coined by economist Glen Whitman in 2004 in an exchange on the Language Log weblog, is applied to well-known clichés or “phrasal templates” that are recycled in multiple ways with varying words.

Examples are catchphrases like “We don’t need no stinking X,” or “I'm not an X, but I play one on TV” or advertising slogans like “Got X?”

The television show Have Gun – Will Travel starred Richard Boone as the main character, Paladin.

Yep, just Paladin. One name. Or you could call him Mister Paladin.

Paladin was what could be called a problem solving consultant, though most people thought of him as a professional gunfighter for hire.

He tried to make sure he only worked for people who were on the right side of some issue or problem. And, he tried to settle things without violence if he could.

But he could draw and fire a gun faster than, well, anyone he had to deal with in the show.

So, if you drew against Paladin, you were probably a bad guy or stupid. And, if you drew against Paladin, you’d probably end up dead.

In work mode, Paladin dressed in a black and wore a Colt .45 six-shooter in a distinctive holster embossed with a metal image of a chess knight, a piece associated with medieval knights in armor, once referred to as “paladins.”

When he wasn’t working, Paladin lived the life of a fancily-dressed dude in San Francisco.

That’s where people could contact him, as noted in his enigmatic business card, which also had the image of a chess knight, along with the memorable words:

       “Have Gun Will Travel.
              Wire Paladin
             San Francisco”

Any messages that came for Paladin would usually be delivered by the other regular character in the series, Hey Boy (played by actor Kam Tong).

Hey Boy was a Chinese bellhop at Paladin’s residence, the Carlton Hotel. He served as kind of an on-call gofer for Paladin.

Have Gun - Will Travel originally aired for six glorious seasons, from 1957 to 1963. It was so popular that it became one of the few TV shows that spawned a radio version. The radio series starred popular character actor John Dehner as Paladin and ran on the CBS Radio Network for two years, from 1958 to 1960.

I remember watching the TV series every week when I was a kid, on my family’s grainy black-and-white TV. And, I still know the words of the show’s theme song “The Ballad of Paladin,” sung by country music star Johnny Western at the end of each episode.

Nowadays, the show can be viewed streaming online on Youtube and elsewhere or on DVD. It can also sometimes be seen on some of the cable TV channels that feature “classic television” shows.

They don’t make many shows today that I like as much as Have Gun – Will Travel. But I will admit the technology for viewing is better than the TV set my family had in our living room in 1957.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to the date SEPTEMBER 14:

“Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries.” - Hit song from the stage show George White’s Scandals of 1931, which opened at the Apollo Theatre in New York City on September 14, 1931.

“There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” - President Calvin Coolidge, in a famous telegram about the Boston police strike that he sent to Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, on September 14, 1919.

“Say It loud: ‘I’m Black and I'm Proud’” - Hit song by James Brown, which entered Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart on September 14, 1968.

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