W.C. Fieldisms

ablution/ablutions–to wash the body of; to wash one’s hands of the matter. Fields used this in correspondence.

abscond/absconded–to steal; stolen. Fields used these terms in some tall tales.

ad lib/ad libitum–to improvise. Fields ad libbed on stage, in film, and on radio. He used the words often in correspondence.

alacrity–eagerness, quickness. Fields used this in radio scripts and letters.

antipodes–anyplace on the other side of the world. Fields often used it in film as a real place name ie. “The Antipedes” (pronounced: an-TIP-uh-dees).

antithesis–on the contrary. Used often by Fields in the phrase: “Quite the antithesis!”

apple jack–an alcoholic beverage. Ambrose Wolfinger (Fields) made this on the sly in his basement in The Man on the Flying Trapeze. It’s also the punch line to a Fields joke used on the radio.

argot–means ‘slang,’ ie.: a “bank dick” is the “argot of the underworld” (The Bank Dick).

assegai/assagai–actually, a South African spear. In The Bank Dick a sword and knife are variously referred to as an “assegai”–allegedly used in an attack on Egbert Souse’ (Fields).

Bacchus–god of wine in Roman mythology. Fields intones, “Shades of Bacchus!” after a brat drops grapes on his face in It’s a Gift.

beezer–slang for nose. Fields used this on radio and in correspondence.

Beelzebub–Satan. Fields shouts “Beelzebub!”–appropriately–when he sees a goat in his bed in My Little Chickadee.

boondoggle/boondoggling–to engage in worthless work or trifling. Fields asks a bar customer if he ever “went boondoggling” in The Bank Dick.

buptkie/bumpkie–a dud (evidently). I can’t find this slang phrase in any dictionary, but Fields wrote it into several of his film scripts. In The Bank Dick, the movie scout calls his two-reeler a “buptkie,” and in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, brats Butch and Buddy call The Bank Dick–in a circular inside joke–a buptkie.
Comment from reader: “I take a “Bumpkie” to be a bumpkin; i.e. “an awkward and unsophisticated rustic.”

The Buster House–Also known as “The Old Buster House;” a fictional hotel Fields refers to in My Little Chickadee and on radio. Fields may have gotten the name from an actual establishment.

canaries–a bird Fields used on stage and in film. Sometimes used in his endearments, ie., “my little Rocky Mountain canary.”

cicerone–travel guide. Field used this word in letters about his travels.

clams–Baby LeRoy threw a can of these mollusks at Fields in It’s a Gift. The drunken director in The Bank Dick is named “A. Pismo Clam.”

cockles–To deeply touch one’s heart, emotions. “To warm the cockles of your heart,” as The Great McGonigle (Fields) says in The Old Fashioned Way.

cognomen–a surname or nickname. In My Little Chickadee, Fields refers to Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) as “yon damsel with the hothouse cognomen”–hothouse, of course, referring to flower.

crackers–Fields stuffs crackers in his mouth for comic effect in several films.

Cucamonga–city in California. A favorite Fields place name.

Cumquat/Kumquat–a fruit. An irate customer shouts “Cumquats!” at Fields incessantly in It’s a Gift.

“A dash of Rover”–absinthe, a toxic, and now-illegal drink mixer. “Soothes the nerves,” according to Fields in The Bank Dick.

The Devil’s Brew–liquor, alcohol. Fields used the phrase in various works. His other terms for alcohol included: “nose paint,” “angel’s milk,” “golden nectar,” “tonsil varnish,” and “demon rum.”

diaphanous–sheer, transparent. Fields asks his niece in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break if she wants to wear a “diaphanous gown.”

dick–slang for “detective” or guard, ie., the “house dick” in My Little Chickadee and the “bank dick” in The Bank Dick. Fields was aware of the other slang meaning of the word, and Hollywood censors frowned on it.

Drat!–Fields used this expression of disgust in all of his films.

durance vile–imprisonment; also: in durance vile. Fields used the phrase “in durance vile” as a fancy substitute for “in jail,” in scripts and in coversation.

effulgence/effulgent–adj.“What effulgent sunshine!” says W.C. in his disturbingly ironic remark on the fine weather the day the McGillicuddy brothers killed their mother. Effulgence means bright, radiant, brilliant.

elk–An animal mentioned often in Fields’ films. He admonished others to “go milk the elk,” or said he had to “milk the elk.” In The Old Fashioned Way, he asked, “How are all the Elks over in new Philadelphia?”

euphonious–pleasing to the ear. Fields calls Flower Belle Lee’s name in in My Little Chickadee, “a euphonious appellation.”

fetlock–an area of the leg, just above the hoof on a horse. Fields used the expression in film and on radio to mean anyone’s lower leg.

fly/flies–Fields swatted flies for comic effect in several films. Flies are mentioned three times in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. Also, “Old Tom” the fly was the subject of a Fieldsian tall tale.

fortnit–Field’s rural take on “fortnight” in The Fatal Glass of Beer and in The Man on the Flying Trapeze.

goat–the animal was a Fieldsian comic obsession. He claimed to eat one in Mississippi. He told of a “Rocky Mountain goat” in tall tales; he found a goat in his bed in My Little Chickadee; he mentioned goat fragrances such as “Parfum de la Mountain Goat” in a couple films; and he drank “nanny goat’s milk” in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.

Godfrey Daniel!–The closest thing to “Goddamn!” Fields could sneak into his films. Used in almost all his films.

heartfelt contrition–to be very sorry for wrongdoing. Fields used this phrase in conversation and letters.

hearty handclasp–The bank president’s weird “handshake” in The Bank Dick. Also mentioned in The Big Broadcast of 1938.

Himalayas–Asian mountain range and locale of several Fieldsian tall tales. Fields pronounced it in the English manner–Himal-YUZ–in several films and on radio.

hither and yon–here and there. A favorite off-screen Fields expression.

honey–Fields used this endearment with Mae West in My Little Chickadee, with the blind Mr. Muckle in It’s a Gift, and even with Lena the elk in The Fatal Glass of Beer.

Ipecac–a vomit inducer, but Fields used it to mean cough medicine in at least two films.

jabbernowl–blockhead, nincompoop, numbskull, according the Webster’s; a variation of “jobbernowl.” Fields berated his future son-in-law Og Oggilby with this and other unflattering names in The Bank Dick.

Kokomo–Indiana town. Place name used by Fields.

Lake Titicaca–highest lake in the world, in South America. Mentioned in several Fieldsian tall tales in films.

lettuce–slang for money, in The Bank Dick.

Lompoc–town in California; actually pronounced Lom-POKE. Fields mispronounced it as Lom-POCK in The Bank Dick.

martini–Fields’ favorite alcoholic beverage; a mixture of gin and vermouth. He liked it cold and with an olive.

metatarsal–adjective form of metatarsus, a bony area of the foot. Reference: “My metatarsal bone!” in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. (See also “sacroiliac” and “sciatica”).

Michael Finn/Mickey Finn/mickey finn–a spiked drink; something (ie., a narcotic) added to an alcoholic drink to increase its potency or to make the drinker sick. J. Pinkerton Snoopington’s drink was spiked with a mickey in The Bank Dick. Also, part of the title of Fields’ tall tale: “Tales of Michael Finn.”

mocha java–coffee. Fields used the term in several films.

mogo on-the-go-go-go–a fictitious disease Fields mentions in several films.

molasses–the gooey liquid is used in several Fields gags. Baby LeRoy opens a tap of molasses, with devastating results, in It’s a Gift. Also, LeRoy dips Fields’ watch in molasses in The Old Fashioned Way.

moon calf–an idiot or fool. A Fields insult in The Bank Dick.

mother-of-pearl–the hard, pearly inside layer of shellfish, used in making various objects such as buttons. Fields turned it into a curse of frustration (“Mother of Pearl!”) in several films. Also a euphemism for ‘Mother of God’; i.e. Mary.

mustard–the condiment that made for a tastier dog in The Fatal Glass of Beer and goat in Mississippi.

My little chickadee–Fields’ most famous endearment, from the film of the same name. Other endearments he used in various films, included: My little Rocky Mountain Canary, My little dove pie, My little sugar-coated wedding cake, My phlox, my flower, My little peach fuzz, My little cupcake, and (off screen) My little brood mare.

nipper–child, or a reference to a mischievous child: “It’ll make me love the little nipper all the more” (The Old Fashioned Way).

nose paint–booze (and its reddening effect in the nose); used in The Bank Dick. (See also: The Devil’s Brew).

The old army game–Fields’ name for the shell game; used in the title of his film It’s the Old Army Game.

paloma–this word has several definitions: shark bait; a brownish-orange color, or, in Spanish, dove or pigeon.The latter is Fields’ likely meaning, as he often referred to women as birds. Thus, his phrase “tough paloma” is a typically funny, ironic Fieldsian juxtaposition that translates into “tough bird,” or literally, “tough dove.” The fragile bird of peace is thus turned into something threatening.

Passamaquoddy–Name of an Indian tribe, reservation and bay in Maine. Fields used it as a place name.

pater–Fields used this alternative word for “father” in film and radio.

patois–jargon, provincial dialect. Fields used this in correspondence.

peccadillo/peccadilloes–minor sins. Fields used the term in at least two films.

peregrinations–travels. Fields used this word off screen.

perspicacity–adverb form of perspicacious, meaning to have insight or knowledge. Used by Fields in film and radio.

Philadelphia–Given a choice between dying, going to Hell, or living in Philadelphia, Fields invariably chose the latter as the lesser evil. W.C. had few kind words for his birthplace city, as jokes on film, on radio, and in off-screen conversations indicate.

Pocatella–A town Fields mentions in The Old Fashioned Way. Perhaps he means Pocatello, a town in Idaho.

portmanteau–a suitcase. He uses this word in several films.

proboscis–usually refers to a trunk or long snout, but is also a comical word for nose. Fields called his nose this in several films and in real life.

provider–which originally meant a monk’s pittance of food, but by which he meant simply “food”; in “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch”.

pulchritude–physical beauty. Fields used the term in conversation.

Punxsutawney–town in Pennsylvania, mentioned in a film.

puss–slang for face. Fields used this in films.

pussy–cat. Mentioned in two films in ways that might be considered risque. The “Black Pussy Cafe” was the bank “dick’s” favorite hangout in The Bank Dick.

quibble–petty argument; nit-picking. After some underhanded golf shenanigans in The Dentist, Fields tells his partner not to “quibble” about it.

“Quite the antithesis”–Fields’ way of saying, “On the contrary” in several films.

rapscallion–scoundrel. Word Fields used in real conversation.

raspberry–another comic-obsession object of Fields. He pronounced it in the English manner: ROZ-berry. There’s a strange gag in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break in which the deflating tire of a raspberry vendor’s car gives passersby the “raspberry.”

Rocky Mountain Goat–a real animal. Fields confused these with tigers and other ferocious beasts in at least two films. Also, mentioned as a fragrance–“eau de Rocky Mountain Goat” in My Little Chickadee and “Parfum de la Mountain Goat” in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. In a tall tale in Mississippi, Fields mentioned having a rocky mountain goat under one arm while fighting Indians.

Rocky ford cantaloupe–A type of melon. Fields described people with rounded, bald heads as having “a head shaped like a Rocky ford cantaloupe.” He used the phrase in at least two films and a radio skit.

sacroiliac–joint between the sacrum and ilium (spinal bones). Fields mentioned it in film and actually hurt himself in this area several times.

sarsaparilla–a sweet, root-flavored drink, disparagingly referred to by Fields in several films.

saturnalia–orgiastic wild partying, festive, hedonistic. W.C. referred to booze as “liquid saturnalia” in Tales of Manhattan.

say finae–you can’t fool me. Used in It’s a Gift.

scalawag–scoundrel. Used by Fields in actual conversation.

Schmegendorf’s–clothes store for “older women” in It’s a Gift.

sciatica–(pronounced SY-attica). The sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back to the pelvic region and legs. Used in the phrase “Suffering Sciatica!” in Mississippi and It’s a Gift, after Fields fell on his backside. (Documents show he was using this phrase as early as 1908). He actually hurt himself in this area several times.

sconce–slang for “head.” In The Dentist, Fields said his golf ball “hit a geezer on the sconce.”

skullduggery–evil doings. Fields used the word in The Old Fashioned Way

spondulicks (or) spondulix–a slang term for money; origin unknown. Gambler Fields asks a partner in My Little Chickadee, “Have you any of the elusive spondulicks on you?”

squidgilum–word invented by Fields; the name of a “kissing game” he plays with a gullible young lady in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. He also refers to “Cleopatra Pepperday” as “an old squidgilum” in The Old Fashioned Way.

succor–help; to need help. In “A Snake Story” on radio, the reptile trapped under a rock “begged for succor.”

“suffering sciatica”–(see “sciatica”).

taradiddle–to trifle, waste time. Also to lie or swindle. A common Fields term.

terra firma–earth, soil. Term used by Fields.

Ubangi–African river. Fields referred to an African tribe by this name in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and My Little Chickadee.

ultimo–referring to the prior month. In his letters, Fields would refer to a particular date from the previous month as “11 ultimo,” etc.

wickiup–an Indian hut, in which adventurer Fields claimed to have once lived in “A Snake Story” and in the films You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man and Poppy.

zounds!–an exclamation of surprise used by Fields.

19 thoughts on “W.C. Fieldisms

  1. I wonder if a future inside joke (using policeman-related “buptkie” was “West Side Story”s Officer Krupke?

    Nice list! Was looking for squidgilum. Found it. Now to find “Never Give A Sucker An Even Break” on DVD.

  2. Actually, the toxic and hallucinogenic properties of absinthe turned out to be pure myth, and the liqueur was recently legalized in the USA.

    Ipecac was meant as an emetic in It’s a Gift, after Baby LeRoy’s mother falsely accused Fields of stuffing the child with grapes and giving him colic.

    Portmanteau actually refers to a type of suitcase which is divided into two compartments, something apparently popular a century ago.

    No references to one of Field’s best films, “You’re Telling Me” (c.1934). Has anyone seen it?

  3. “Syrup of Squill” was the other emetic mentioned in It’s a Gift. Apparently, this joke crossed over into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine many decades later.

    “Chickadee” was used to refer to an ostrich in You’re Telling Me, where Fields hands the tethered bird off to wealthy Mr. Murchison and says something like, ‘Murchie, mind the chickadee” before walking off.

  4. Slight correction; Fields referred to elusive sponduits, not spondulicks (or) spondulix. It is another word for money

  5. I think Lompoc is pronounced lom-poc not poke
    I would like to to know about the Grampion Hills, does that refer to Celtic victories over Hadrian?
    I’d like to who what a Tartable is? Does he say Tatar? Tartar?
    Absinthe had opium in it. the new re-released absinthe doesn’t have the opium.

  6. Oh And when he says unbange in the fuel supply is what blank in the woodpile…….

  7. “Say finae” may actually be “C’est fini” which means “It’s all over” in French. In one of his movies, I’m not sure which one, I believe he said something like “Evidently, there’s an Ethiopean in the fuel supply.”

  8. Absinthe has wormwood not opium.
    “Mother of Pearl” is a replacement for “Mother of God.” which might be used instead of “Mother F—er” but was considered a curse in it’s own right.

  9. I always heard “buptkie” as (buck pee” or “buck pea”. That’s the way I thought I heard the word pronounced, thinking it was a synonym for “turkey”, as we might describe something that’s a flop as a “turkey”, so we might say it’s a “buck pea”. Maybe an old theatrical term, since in both “The Bank Dick” and “Never Give A Sucker An Even Break” it was used to describe a movie.

    “Rocky Mountain Canary” was western slang for a donkey. I’ve read this in connection with Billy Murray, the popular singer on many early 20th century recordings. He was originally from Denver and humorously referred to himself as “the Rocky Mountain Canary.” In “The Old Fashioned Way”, WC calls Cleopatra Pepperday “my Rocky Mountain Canary”, and she’s flattered, being oblivious to the real meaning of the term.

  10. ‘fuddy-duddy’ from the Bank Dick, “Don’t be a ‘moon calf’, don’t be a ‘fuddy duddy’, don’t be a ‘jabber now’ you’re not those are you?”

  11. That’s “luddy-duddy,” rather than “fuddy-duddy” in “The Bank Dick.”
    Also, there is no historical reference to absinthe commonly containing opium, or laudanum; this isn’t say that people didn’t add these drugs (which were over-the-counter items at the time) to their absinthe, but it seems to be a myth that absinthe was actually bottled with the stuff.
    Grampian Hills is a Mountain Range in Klamath County, Oregon.
    The use of “raspberry,” to signify the “pfffft” sound one makes, derives from Cockney rhyming slang; it’s half of “raspberry tart,” which is rhyming slang for “fart.”
    I don’t think there has ever been, nor will there ever be, anyone who could use language to such comic effect, with such poetic fluidity as W.C..
    As you may guess, I’m on my second absinthe as I write.

  12. In My Little Chichadee, he used “Ethiopean in the fuel supply” translated as n….er in the woodpile.

  13. “buptkie/bumpkie–a dud (evidently). I can’t find this slang phrase in any dictionary,”
    – I believe you’ll find this in Yiddish dictionaries under “bupkes”.

  14. Absinthe is not toxic by nature, and it is today legal in many countries; although some contaminated absinthe may have been related to its original banning.

    I take a “Bumpkie” to be a bumpkin; i.e. “an awkward and unsophisticated rustic.”

    I would add to this list “provider”, which originally meant a monk’s pittance of food, but by which he meant simply “food”; in “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch”. He also has in it “atwit” for “atwitter”.

    “Mother of pearl!” of course is a euphemism for ‘Mother of God’; i.e. Mary.

    Thanks for compiling this list.

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