Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 1993; 7:56 AM

And she seemed so lovable, so innocent ...

Yet there was Cathy in 1,200 newspapers yesterday -- Cathy, the sweet, neurotic character who stars in the long-running comic strip of the same name -- using the following words to describe the actions of a temporary co-worker: "{She's} in the ladies room giving a swirley to the copier repairman." Giving a swirley. The mind reels.

Seeing as how this is a family newspaper, we knew there had to be an explanation.

No, it's not that, although about a dozen newspaper editors called Universal Press Syndicate, the comic strip's syndicator, to make sure.

For the record, a swirley is a juvenile prank in which a person's head is held in a toilet, which is then flushed.

Cathy Guisewite, Cathy's creator and alter ego, figured everyone knew that. A native of Michigan, she said the phrase is common throughout the Midwest.

"I'm so embarrassed," said Guisewite yesterday after hearing about the calls her editors received. "I just pulled out the strip and read it in a whole different way. It conjures up all sorts of images I did not intend in any way, shape or form. Trust me, it was a completely innocent thing."

"Giving a swirley" appears to be one of those colorful regionalisms that has held fast in certain parts of the country despite the leveling forces of the mass media. In other words, unless you're from Guisewite's neck of the country, you probably don't know a swirley from a wedgie. Even Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied regional speech, guessed it meant ... well, you know.

People stopped at random on a downtown Washington street yesterday had their own ideas. Tania Sadowski, a fragrance wholesaler, had the same idea as Dundes. Her co-worker, Helen Kiser, suggested it might be something violent. Radio reporter Don Rush wasn't sure, and lawyer Channing Strother offered that it might be "risque." One man, who didn't give his name, said it had something to do with the way snow comes down on a windy day. You know, swirly.

Only Robin Roberson, a UPS employee, could put his finger on it. But then, Roberson lived in Michigan for 19 years.

Lisa Tarry, Guisewite's editor at Universal Press, thought the reference sounded a little odd when Guisewite handed in the strip, but after taking an informal poll of her office mates, she felt reassured. "It didn't send up any red flags, frankly," Tarry said. "If it happens again we might think twice about it."

Universal Press is, of course, located in Kansas City.

As for Guisewite, she said it's possible a future "Cathy" strip may explain the whole swirley thing. She said she is particularly red-faced because she's always tried to keep Cathy -- a single woman whose work, romantic life and other relationships form the basis of the strip -- so wholesome.

"I completely respect everyone's moral sensibilities," she said. "I'm not out to make a case for anything shocking. There's enough humor in just normal stuff that I don't feel a need to go stirring up people."

© 1993 The Washington Post Company