pseudopodium
. . . Milt Gross

. . .

Although my usually beloved readers were of no help in tracing the origins of "Is dis a system?" and therefore are, per threat, to be smote again with the jawbone of a Betsy lyric:

  I'm just the mother type,
  You want no other type,
    And I'll be very chummy with the stork.
  All babies charm me, dear,
  You'll have an army, dear,
    And we'll make London smaller than New York.

de Fox witt de Crow witt de Chizze


and another (SMACK) for luck (SMACK!!):

  At the Saskatchewan,
  We will not scratch you on
    Your race
    Or on your face;
  We'd let Lon Chaney in.

SMACK!!  

and, what the heck, I'm starting to enjoy this:

  If you don't understand my language
    You must be a big dumb Dora.
  My people make the Bronx and Brooklyn
    Look like Sodom and Gomorrah!
  We are here two million strong,
    Not counting the Assyrians
  And many Christian Scientists
    And several Presbyterians.

Ho K.

...anyhow, never mind, it doesn't matter, 'cause the mysterious unseen (and probably unwashed) hand of the American muse has already hooked my snoot in the right direction. While trying to use up some trade at Moe's, I found a copy of Nize Baby, prose mitt illustrations from Milt Gross yet. What I really wanted was a pure collection of comics from Milt Gross, but I never get what I really want, so I brought the book home anyway: at least it was Milt Gross, and for a high-low-brow waggler the pages' surface resemblance to contemporaneous work by John Dos Passos and William Carlos Williams was irresistable:

     First Floor —So it was a socksess de hoperation?
     Second Floor A whole night long I couldn't slip.
     First Floor —Wos boddering you maybe de — efter-defects, ha?
     Second Floor —No was cerrying on in de next bat from me a patient someting tarrible. So I made a complain to de head sturgeon from de hospital. So he explained wot he was soffering from attaletic fits!
     First Floor —So you came home.
     Second Floor —Hm. I went for a copple of wicks to rest in a cemetarium so den I came home.
     Third Floor —So, Isidor! (SMACK) Wid a paddler you ronning arond to paddle de hepples, ha? (SMACK) De huss from de paddler you got to fid yet, he should bite you off maybe a feenger, ha? (SMACK) To de dalicatassen store you wouldn't go, when she esks you de momma, ha? (SMACK) De lassons wot you got to stoddy you don't do it, ha? (SMACK) Benenas you should paddle better, ha? (SMACK) A hockster you should grow opp maybe yet, ha? ( SMACK.)
     Fourth Floor —Oohoo nize baby, itt opp all de mosh witt milk so momma'll gonna tell you a Ferry Tale about De Dug in de Manager. Wance oppon a time was seeting a dug in a manager. So de manager was full from hay wit hoats. So it came along a cow so he said, "I'm filling a leedle hongry —I tink wot I'll goin' in de manager und have a leedle bite hay maybe." (Nize baby take anodder spoon mosh witt milk.) So it came in de cow but dot doidy dug was sotch a crenk witt a minn ting wot you wouldn't billive it could exeest. So he stodded in to bok —"Gr-r-r-rrr! Gerraderhere, you cow!!" So de cow went away like a gantleman so de naxt day he came beck so dot doidy dug sad. "Grrr-rr-rrr! Gerradahere, you cow!!" So de cow sad, "Wot's de metter? You don't want me I should itt it opp de hay??" So de dug sad, "NO!!" So de cow sad, "You want maybe you should itt it opp yourself de hay?" So de dug sad, "NO! I don't want I should itt it und I don't want you should itt it." So de cow sad, "Hm, you don't want you should itt it und you don't want I should itt it. Is diss a system???" (Oohoo, sotch a dollink baby ate opp all de mosh witt milk!)

The undoubtedly perspiring reader who made it to the end of Fourth Floor's Ferry Tale will have noticed our prey at bay. (The more reasonable reader who gave up early on is directed to the next-to-last sentence.) In fact, our prey is all over the dang place! So here's why, failing counterargument from R. Crumb or someone like him, I think Milt Gross is the ultimate source:
  1. You need a catchphrase to make it in this wicked world, and Milt Gross gives the peculiar catchphrase "Is diss a system?" the blanket coverage of an assured trademark -- it's in pretty much every other column. (His claim to "Banana oil!" seems more contestable, though he's still two years earlier than the first OED attestation, P. G. Wodehouse in 1927.)
  2. It fits for Hart to be making a topical reference: the original "Gross Exaggerations" columns were running in the New York World in 1925, the Nize Baby collection was a 1926 bestseller, and Betsy flopped onto the Broadway boards like a suicidal inedible fish on December 28, 1926.
  3. Internet research at its finest: two guys on Usenet credited it to Gross in passing.
Hm! See, is de law from gratification!

. . .

My Funny Valentine

        -- The ungainliness
        of the creature needs stating.

Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
Should take?

        -- Description -- lightly -- ungainliness
        With a grace unrelated to its suroundings.
- Louis Zukofsky

Gob, he'd have a soft hand under a hen.
- James Joyce

Ungainly not only here, Zukofsky's muse. As for grace?

The extent to which you find (for example) "Look in your own ear and read" 1 an infelicitous image 2 must depend on whether you consider gooniness one of the felicities of lyric. 3

Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten have demonstrated two very different ways of reading Zukofsky humorlessly, but why bother? I read Zukofsky because he makes me laugh.

Am I laughing with Zukofsky or at him? Is the humor about a dry pedant being unselfaware, or is it the dry humor of a selfaware pedant?

First reaction

It's not any of our business. Finding out that Thurber was "really" an abusive drunk should make us rightly suspicious of getting married to guys because they make us laugh, but it shouldn't make us stop laughing at them, any more than finding out that name-your-slapstick-favorite was "really" very graceful and athletic. As Barthes pointed out in his immensely influential essay, "The Death of the Clown," one never gets the opportunity to laugh at a performer. Only at a performance.

Second reaction

It's pointless to worry about intentions if the point is that the intention is unknowable. When the absent-minded professor springs out of bed shouting "Zebra-fragrant! That's the answer: zebra-fragrant!",4 the joke depends on our understanding his lack of regard rather than our understanding what he's on about.

Third reaction

Not all laughter is mocking. Laughter is also a reaction to surprise and pleasure. We laugh to free our mind from our mind's bondage. When pundits talk about humor, they often concentrate on the Rush Limbaugh and Camille Paglia end of the spectrum, but George Herriman and Buster Keaton are funnier.

Not that Zukofsky is that funny. We are talking about just poetry, where the competition's not as fierce as in cartoons or slapstick, and the results are weaker. If it's true that twentieth-century poets' humor doesn't age well, 5 that's probably because nothing about twentieth century poetry ages well. The wit has always been sub-Rotarian; the lyricism has always been kitsch; the politics has always been blowhardy; the eroticism has always been braggadoccio; the imagination has always been received. What fades over time aren't its effects, but the personal allegiances and illusions that distracted contemporary readers from its effectual paucity.

Still, Pound's bullying excursions into dialect are clearly enough distinguishable from Zukofsky's homeboy familiarity. One is Collins-&-Harlan; the other is, if not Herriman or Keaton, then at least, say, Milt Gross. 6 On his recordings, I hear a soft-spoken hay-fevered rabbinical Groucho Marx; like Marx, a near-as-dirt-to-perpetual verbal machine requiring just an occasional squirt of impulse -- lyric (Zukofsky) or aggressive (Marx) -- to keep the flywheels spinning.

Whether we react like Margaret Dumont or like Edgar Kennedy is a matter of personal taste. I know to which model of bewilderment I aspire, even if I only ever make it to Zeppo.

----
1 Speaking of private knowledge, this paraphrases Ezra Pound's advice, "Look into thine owne eare and reade," sent in a letter to Zukofsky in 1930.
2 Cf. "Ars Vini" by Anselm Dovetonsils:
         Look up your nose and blend.
3 Presumably Lorenz Hart, for example, was aware of the consequences should one's cardiac muscles try to twist themselves into even the coyest of smiles.
4 Wasn't it Marianne Moore who described poetry as "imaginary lunch bags with real frogs in them"?
5 But how can you trust the judgment of a guy who writes about humor without mentioning David Bromige?
6 A search for "Milt Gross Zukofsky" lands me at the Hugh Kenner Papers, which isn't surprising. What surprised me was finding the typescript of the Heath/Zenith Z-100 User's Guide there.

. . .

In Search of Beezark

Into Me and My Gal's 19 days of shooting and 79 minutes of footage Raoul Walsh and team crammed comedy, romance, suspense, melodrama, sex both obsessive and healthy, a mute quadraplegic war vet, a lot of drinking, a cafe straight out of Thimble Theater, and a startlingly ahead-of-its-time caper sequence, and still maintained a relaxed keep-the-cameras-rolling kind of mood.

But that's not the point. The point is that Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett keep using the word "beezark" (or "beezok") the same way they use "dope", as a roughneck endearment.

They really love that word. It's kind of infectious.

And, according to pre-Code ace Juliet Clark, in 1933's The Mayor of Hell, Jimmy Cagney addresses a reform school guard as "Ya screw... ya beezok" (or "beezark").

The "beezark" spelling is fairly well attested on the web:

It doesn't appear, however, in the OED or Webster's or the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, or in any of the several dozen reference works at UC Berkeley except one goddamned thesaurus where it's listed bare-assed as a "Term of disparagement", or in the archives of American Speech.

The last time I asked my readers for slang origins, it worked out pretty well. (I found the origin myself, but that's still pretty well.) This time the challenge is so great that I feel compelled to ask non-readers even. Any idea where this comes from?

Responses

beezark, n. : from the Old Norse 'baresark' or 'berserker'; one who is sufficiently incensed in battle to remove his upper garment (the sark or bearnie) and run amuck. Hence any lunatical or foolish fellow, ne'er-do-well, nincompoop or ragamuffin.

Thanks, Anon, our source for all good things. As a reader of Celtic and Icelandic sagas and a resident of Berkeley, that coincidence came to my mind as well. But "ber" to "bee" seemed a wide unattested leap to take across centuries of intervening North American immigrations, and so I didn't trust my instincts. Do you have a reason to? I'm just folk, and you know how people talk about folk etymology.

UPDATE: Language Hat, that wonderful wonderful Hat, to the rescue:

You may be having problems because you're spelling it "wrong" (though of course the spelling of slang terms isn't exactly set in stone); my reference books have it as "bezark." The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says:

bezark [orig. unkn.] an odd or contemptible man or woman. ca1925 in D. Runyon Poems for Men 15: This bezark... was once so quiet that we called him Silent Sam. 1929 in R.E. Howard Book 64: At this moment some bezark came barging up to our table and... leaned over and leered engagingly at my girl. Ibid. 78: Add to this the fact that he frequently shoved me against the wall, and you can get an idea what kind of a bezark I was fighting. 1932 AS (June) 329: Bezark -- a person [at Johns Hopkins Univ.]. 1942-49 Goldin et al. DAUL 259: Don't crack to that bezark (girl) of yours about touches (robberies).

(You can read an excerpt of the Robert E. Howard story here.)

And Cassell says:

bezark n. [1920s-40s] (US) an eccentric or unpleasant person. [? SE berserk]

I checked "beezark", I checked "beezok", I checked "bizok", but, dang, I must not have checked "bezark".

I mentioned this to one of your non-readers this afternoon, and he said they don't like it when you talk about them. He said they had a file, some charts, a graph or two. That it came up at meetings. And that's all he'd say about it.

How irksome.

Cobra Libre writes:

I don't actually have anything useful to add to "In Search of Beezark," but, by happy coincidence, my nighttime reading has recently taken a detour into Icelandic sagas, and so last night I opened up my new used copy of "Egil's Saga" to read:

"There was a man called Ulf Bjalfason. His mother was Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the Fearless, and she was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-Troll of Hrafnista, father of Ketil Trout. Ulf was so big and powerful that there was no one to match him. As a young man he used to go off on viking trips looking for plunder, and his partner in these was a man of good family called Berle-Kari, strong and full of courage. He was a berserk."

I'd like that last sentence on my tombstone, but I'm far too shy to run around amuck shirtless.

Me, I'd like the second sentence on my tombstone.

In fact, I'd like so many things on my tombstone, I may have to die more than once. Luckily, I'm a coward!

I happened to be re-reading 'The Thirteen Gun Salute' by Patick O'Brian just before checking in here, and there was an amusing (short) exchange between Jack and Stephen on the subject of 'running amock' 'or amuck?', Jack wonders; the subject comes up because of a couple of beserkers in Malaya who are, well, running amok, cutting people up. 'What a fellow you are, Stephen!' - Renfrew

UPDATE: In June 2005, the American Dialect Society Mailing List treated the subject. One poster noted many instances of "Bezark" as a surname. I'd noticed that myself, guessing that it's a corruption of the even more common family name "Bizok". And, as I had, he wondered whether the slang term might be a derogatory generalization. No evidence so far, though.

On firmer ground, Ben Zimmer moves the word's first printed attestation back to May 25, 1919:

"THE BUGS have no use for the beezark who carries a picture of himself in the back of his watch. It's a crippled loving cup that only has one handle." - "Two and Three: Putting the Next One Over" by Bugs Baer, Atlanta Constitution

Zimmer cited some more examples from Baer's column, and asked "Did Baer coin it, or just popularize it?"

UPDATE: A year later, and reader john l adds:

I stumbled across your reference to Thomas Thursday and the use of the word "beezark." Thursday used this term frequently in his humorous pulp stories. The first instance I know of occurs in "Missed in Missouri" (Top-Notch Magazine, May 15, 1920): "We put half of the side show on the bally doing all kinds of stunts, but didnít succeed in getting more than five beezarks to squander a dime." "Beezark" is one of many comic invectives he employed, e.g. yamneck, yapbean, dilbo, boobist, hickwah, etc. Thursday's publishing record is thin prior to 1920, but there's a remote chance he predates your 1919 refs, but it wouldn't be by much.

UPDATE 2010-10-21 : Terence O'Connell adds:

Another movie instance, which started my search: near the end of Sailorís Luck, a 1933 Raoul Walsh movie, James Dunn is quarreling with his girl friend Sally Eilers, whom he suspects of infidelity, and says something that sounds like "All you beezoks are alike."

UPDATE 2012-05-26 : Justin Patton adds (much to my embarrassment, since I bought the source text back in the 1980s):

Stumbled across “Beezark” in a Thimble Theater strip from October 12, 1929, and when looking it up online I found your site. Popeye and Castor Oyl are scammed into buying a “brass mine” in the Beezark Mountains, and then travel there to find that it doesn’t exist. The Beezark Mountains, or Beezark Center as it is later referred to over the next few months in the strip, are the primary location of the story arc that lasts until 1930, and are referenced several times. The residents of the Beezark area seem to be poor, naïve, farmers with large numbers or children, and many of them are represented sporting long beards and of advanced age (the police officer, fire chief, etc.). It seemed as though they might have been roughly based on residents of the Ozark Mountain area of the time.

October 12, 1929 – “Popeye and myself are going down to the Beezark Mountains and locate our brass mine.” – Castor Oyl

February 13, 1930 – “It happened about a month ago – I was strolling along the beach near Beezark Center in America.” – Fanny Foster

There are many other references between these two and afterwards, including a misspelling at one point of “Bezark”.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.