Comic Strip History - Tad Dorgan

I've written previously, a few times, about language and idioms that first appeared in comic strips. For the most part, cartoonists are known for one or two things that they popularized and which have stayed around for years. Rube Goldberg had his machines, Al Capp had Sadie Hawkins Day, and George McManus had his newlyweds. Some, like Billy DeBeck, have a few more.

Then there's Tad Dorgan.

Dorgan was a cartoonist in the early 20th century who was best known at the time for his sports comic strips, such as "Indoor Sports", as well as his comic strips about dogs, like "Judge Rummy" and "Silk Hat Harry". He always signed his work as "TAD," although those were actually his initials. His real name was Thomas Aloysius Dorgan.

He is also a problem. He's credited, in more than one place, with either coining or popularizing a very large number of phrases and idioms. Some of them have gone out of style, some are still in common usage, and some have gone out of usage and have had a resurgence. As a comic strip history enthusiast, it's exciting to me to think that a single cartoonist has has that much of an effect on the language, in the short term and the long term. The problem, however, is that while he's credited with these, it isn't exactly clear whether he actually coined or popularized any of them.

Lots of places think they can fudge history by saying someone "popularized" a word or phrase, basically saying that while they may not have come up with it, they used it a lot and were instrumental in spreading it around. As quite a prolific cartoonist, his work was seen by millions on a daily basis, for many years, and therefore it stands to reason that any popular phrase he wrote would easily be spread. I just get a little suspicious when the list of things he "popularized" becomes as large as it is.

Here's what Wikipedia lists:

  • "dumbbell" (a stupid person)
  • "for crying out loud" (an exclamation of astonishment)
  • "cat's meow" and "cat's pajamas" (as superlatives)
  • "applesauce" (nonsense)
  • "cheaters" (eyeglasses)
  • "skimmer" (a hat)
  • "hard-boiled" (tough and unsentimental)
  • "drugstore cowboy" (loafers or ladies' men)
  • "nickel-nurser" (a miser)
  • "as busy as a one-armed paperhanger" (overworked)
  • "Yes, we have no bananas"
  • "Twenty-three, Skidoo"
  • "solid ivory"
  • "Dumb Dora"
  • "finale hopper"
  • "Benny" (a hat)
  • "dogs" (feet or shoes)

Now, as an example of how untrustworthy this list can be, let's look at Dumb Dora, a 1920s phrase for a woman who wasn't too bright. If any cartoonist should get credit for this one it's Chic Young, creator of Blondie, who created a comic strip in 1924 called Dumb Dora that was popular in its day. However, around the same time, Burns and Allen had been popularizing the phrase in their vaudeville act, and there had also been a movie by that name. Who knows where the popularization came from?

Then, of course, there's "hot dog." While it's been widely debunked, Dorgan is in several places still credited with first using the term to refer to a sausage at a New York Giants baseball game. The term, however, has been shown to be in usage at least 10 years before Dorgan ever used it in a comic strip.

The same goes for a number of these. There are other explanations for where they were coined and popularized, but somehow Tad Dorgan gets lumped in with them, probably because he was simply using popular language of his time. Now, I'm not saying that he didn't coin any of them, but the evidence certainly isn't good that he coined all of them.

I think of it like medicine: If a medicine or medical treatment claims to treat one particular symptom, it's much safer to believe that it legitimately does. If it claims to heal and cure a ridiculously large list of symptoms, it's probably safe to at least be extremely skeptical of its claims. While I enjoy Dorgan's work, and while I respect him as a prolific user of slang in a popular medium, I don't think he deserves all the credit that he's given.