The Style Conversational
The Style Conversational
Loser-friendly discussion with The Empress of The Style Invitational

Week 958: What the dickens is a wellerism?

By the E, Pat Myers

The world has been celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Dickens this week, prompting Anu Garg, founder of the e-newsletter A.Word.A.Day (wordsmith.org), to feature a week of “Dickensian characters that became words”: fagin, gamp, scrooge, gradgrind, and wellerism — and for the last, a contest to come up with an original one. Two Invite fans — the heretofore unknown-to-me Stuart Rogers of Toronto, and then Christopher Larsen, a one-ink winner but a frequent and funny poster on the Style Invitational Devotees page on Facebook — pointed it out.

I’d be a little concerned about running a contest that’s already been done, recently, and has so many published entries. But I think (hope) the scope of the Week 958 contest is so wide-ranging that the Greater Loser Community can surpass the AWAD effort. (And you thought I was bad when I accidentally included 400 e-mail addresses on one-third of my mailing list a few weeks ago: this contest publishes all the entrants’ e-mails right there on the site.)

For one thing, a wellerism isn’t very narrowly defined; it’s just a quotation — most often some expression or at least a common phrase — followed by something that somehow makes a wordplay on something in the quote. The wordplay could stem from the name of the speaker, or some word in the description or attribution. Basically, it’s using a word in some humorous way to have two meanings. You’ve heard “ ‘I see,’ said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw”? So now you know it’s a wellerism.

The cockney sidekick character of Sam Weller is found in Dickens’s early work “The Pickwick Papers,” published in 1836-37, and he’s written in brow-furrowing dialect. Example: “… ‘and nobody never did, nor never vill neither; and here am I a-walkin’ about like the wandering Jew — a sportin’ character you have perhaps heerd on Mary, my dear, as vos alvays doin’ a match agin’ time, and never vent to sleep — looking arter this here Miss Arabella Allen.’ ”

I haven’t read “The Pickwick Papers” myself (though I’ve spent huge amounts of time with some other Dickens novels). But my superficial online snooping shows that Sam Weller’s actual witticisms didn’t tend to be the straight double-meaning words we’re used to in such jokes; instead, they’re mostly of the form in which he says something, then applies it to a ridiculous new situation, not necessarily with a wordplay. Example: “Business first, pleasure arterwards, as King Richard the Third said wen he stabbed the t’other king in the Tower, afore he smothered the babbies.” This stuff was evidently a boffo hit in the 1830s; the term “wellerism” itself dates back at least to 1839.

I’m not going to rule out a joke that’s in the construction cited above, provided that it’s clear and hilarious. Heck, I’m not going to rule out anything that’s clear and hilarious, if it’s not on that long Word.A.Day list. Well, it does have to be printable.

THERE’S FIGHT IN IT YET: THE RESULTS OF WEEK 954

When I got the all-clear – no more questions – today from the “multiplatform desk” (née copy desk), an editor added, “Great Invite this week!” Well, okay! I personally wouldn’t place it among the classics of the past 18 years 11 months, but to each his own. A number of regular Losers expressed a lack of inspiration for this contest, and the pool of entries did reflect that. This wasn’t a week in which I had a list of extra entries to add to the Web version of the Invite. But this week’s inking entries are still fun, and surprisingly varied for what threatened to be a repetitive contest.

David Genser’s too-close-to-the-truth dig at condescending auto mechanics made both me and the Royal Consort laugh out loud (I was reading printouts in the car at the time; yes, I was the passenger). David, who after five very strong Loser years took a decade off from the Invite, is back at perhaps the same rate of success as in the 1990s (perhaps Loser Statistician Elden Carnahan could weigh in on that count). In any case, David, who used to live in Arlington, Va., but is now based in the San Diego area, picks up his 17th first-place win and Ink No. 345.

Another transplanted Washingtonian, Ann Martin (now of Berkshire in the south of England), barely will have time to put down the Dear Leader Tongue Scraper she received for second place in Week 951 before she picks up the books she won this week, “Go to Hell” (various interesting things about that destination) and “Fart Proudly” (a collection of the more frankly worded writings of Benjamin Franklin). In all, it’s Ann’s 39th ink and impressive seventh “above the fold.”

The wonderfully minimal fighting words — er, word — courtesy of longtime Loser Mike Gips scores him Ink No. 40, and rookie phenom Robert Schechter continues to score in all kinds of Invite contests with his 26th and 27th inks since only Week 931.

Style Section Editor Lynn Medford, after at least two weeks in a row of agreeing with the Empress’s choice for the Inker, is back on her own; her North Carolina “Haw!” this week goes to Robert Shechter’s honorable mention about the shrink, with a close second to First Offender Elizabeth Miller’s pre-fight dinner announcements.

IT’S HIS YUCKY DAY: THE SCARLET LETTER

Clearly unprintable is this one from Jason Russo:
A man confessed to his wife that he was concerned: “I’ve had this cough for over two months and no amount of medicine makes it better. I’m worried that I may have throat cancer.”
 “No, no, If you had throat cancer, you wouldn’t be able to swallow,” his wife assured him.
 But the man looked just as troubled. “Now I’m worried that YOU have throat cancer.”


IT’S OFFICIAL: SAVE THE DATE OF MAY 12 FOR THE FLUSHIES

The coordinator of the Losers’ own annual award “banquet,” Dave Prevar, reports that he’s signed his life away to the Doubletree Hotel in the free-parking area of suburban Annapolis, Md., in return for a nice meeting room where the Losers can spend an afternoon dining; meeting/re-meeting/fleeing from one another; buying drinks; presenting/receiving awards for Loser of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Imporved, Least Imporved, etc.; performing various song parodies; and paying off the Empress.

I’ll send out the full invitation closer to the event, but it’ll be on the afternoon of Saturday, May 12, from about noon to 4. The room maxes out at 70 people, so it’ll be first-come, first-served; your check for $35 per person will be your reservation. If you’re coming from out of town — and we’d love that; Annapolis is 18 miles from BWI Airport, and May is really the nicest month to visit the Washington/Baltimore area — Dave and crew will make sure you’ll get in if you give some notice. If you’re not on the Invitational e-mail list, contact me at myersp@washpost.com and I’ll add your name.

MEANWHILE, IN (NOT REALLY) THE SAME NEIGHBORHOOD ...

Annapolis proper — the historic part, right on the Severn River, is the site for this month’s Loser Brunch, Sunday, Feb. 19, at 11 a.m. I found a ride and will be there. If you’d like to join us for the buffet at Buddy’s Crabs and Ribs, RSVP and get more information on the Loser Brunch page at bitly.com/loserbrunch.

 
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