Once upon a time, newspaper comic strips were as influential in molding American pop culture (and the way we spoke) as television and social media are today. Odds are we’ll still be using many of these terms long after we’ve stopped describing people as “sponge-worthy” and dismissing them by saying “talk to the hand.”
The word “goon” to describe a simpleton or stupid person dates back to the 16th century, when sailors sometimes compared folks to the albatross, often colloquially referred to as the “gooney bird.” But “goon,” when used to describe a muscular, not-so-bright, hired thug, comes from E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre (aka Popeye) comic strip. Alice the Goon, an eight-foot tall giantess with hairy forearms, debuted in 1933. She was a minion of the vicious Sea Hag and used her brute strength to do the Sea Hag’s bidding.
Another of Segar's characters that has entered the American lexicon is hamburger-loving J. Wellington Wimpy. While the word “wimp” is from World War I, the soft-spoken, intelligent but somewhat cowardly Wimpy gave us a way to describe being a wimp. He also became famous as somewhat of a moocher, thanks to his famous promise “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”
3. Dagwood Sandwich
A Dagwood is any stacked sandwich that consists of a variety of meats, cheeses, and other condiments. Readers have watched Dagwood Bumstead build these gastronomic wonders out of anything and everything he can find in the refrigerator since he married Chic Young’s Blondie in 1933.
How do you describe someone who is even wimpier than Wimpy? Someone who makes George McFly look like Chuck Norris? That guy’s a total milquetoast, as in Caspar Milquetoast, a mild-mannered (to the extreme) character from a one-panel comic strip by H.T. Webster called The Timid Soul. Caspar’s surname was a play on the bland dish called milktoast that was often served to invalids or folks with “nervous” stomachs. Caspar Milquetoast was a guy who’d go buy a new hat rather than trespass when his chapeau blew off his head and onto a lawn bearing a “Keep Off the Grass” sign.
5. Mutt and Jeff
Mutt and Jeff were two comic strip characters created by Bud Fisher in 1907. Augustus Mutt was a tall, lanky ne’er-do-well who liked to bet on the ponies, while his pal Othello Jeff was short, rotund and shared Mutt's passion for “get rich quick” schemes. The strip became so popular that “Mutt and Jeff” entered the lexicon to describe any duo displaying opposite physical characteristics.
6. Keeping up with the Joneses
You’ve probably heard this expression a hundred times and occasionally wondered just who these Jones folks were. Guess what? Even in the comic strip of their origin, they were never seen! Keeping Up with the Joneses was written/drawn by Arthur “Pop” Momand and was first published in the New York Globe in 1913. The strip followed the daily life of the Aloysius P. McGinnis family, and Mrs. McGinnis’ envy of their wealthy neighbors, the Joneses. Poor Aloysius endured his wife outfitting him in “trendy” clothing like lime-green spats and lemon-colored gloves because that’s how Mr. Jones dressed.
Today we describe a person who frets about anything and everything as a “worrywart,” but the phrase originated with a carefree character whose reckless behavior turned those around him into a bundle of nerves. Artist J.R. Williams debuted a one-panel cartoon called Out Our Way in 1922, and eventually the strip was carried by more than 700 newspapers. Out Our Way was an umbrella title for a variety of slice-of-life illustrations that often had a recurring theme, as evidenced in the subtitles: “Why Mothers Get Gray,” “Born 30 Years Too Soon,” “Heroes Are Made, Not Born,” “The Bull of the Woods” (which was set in a machine shop), and “The Worry Wart.” The latter panel featured an 8-year-old boy who got into more mischief than Dennis the Menace.
Billy DeBeck introduced Barney Google to the comics world in 1919, and as the strip gained popularity, he also gifted the American lexicon with a variety of fanciful words and phrases, including “googly-eyed” to describe someone with Barney’s wide, Homer Simpson-esque peepers. Barney’s retired racehorse Spark Plug was so beloved that Charles Schulz and countless other youngsters of that era were christened with the nickname “Sparky.” It was Sparky, in fact, who gave Barney such an off-putting stare on one occasion (in an October 1923 strip) that the man shuddered, “You dumb ox, why doncha get that stupid look offa your pan—you gimme the heeby-jeebys!” DeBeck also gave us “hotsy-totsy” and “horsefeathers,” though those phrases are rarely heard anymore outside of M*A*S*H reruns that feature Colonel Potter.
9. Sadie Hawkins Day/Dance
At the U.S. schools that still recognize it, Sadie Hawkins Day is a gender-reversal “holiday” on which females have the option to invite the male of their choice on a date or to a special dance. Not such a big deal today, but back in 1937, when Al Capp first introduced the concept, the very idea of such boldness on a young woman’s part sent many matrons reaching for their smelling salts. According to the Li’l Abner comic strip, on Sadie Hawkins Day (now traditionally November 13), all the bachelors of Dogpatch gather and start running when the starting pistol is fired. When a second shot is fired, the unmarried women give chase, and any man who was caught and dragged across the finish line was obliged to marry the fleet-footed lady.
10. Dinty Moore
Both the Hormel canned stew and the triple-decker corned beef/lettuce/tomato/Russian dressing sandwich that bear this name were inspired by the tavern owner in the popular George McManus comic strip Bringing Up Father. Maggie and Jiggs, the main characters, were Irish-American immigrants who won a million dollars in a sweepstakes. “Lace-curtain Irish” Maggie eagerly adapted to their nouveau rich lifestyle, but former bricklayer Jiggs missed his boisterous pals and frequently sneaked off to hang with them at Dinty Moore’s, where they’d feast on corned beef and cabbage and Irish stew while enjoying a tipple or two.
11. Sad Sack
This phrase, used to describe an inept clod who usually fails despite his good intentions, has its roots in the military—but in the Army circa World War II, the full phrase given to misfits who failed to shape up was “sad sack of (bad word).” Sgt. George Baker began submitting cartoons to Yank, The Army Weekly that starred a bumbling private identified only as “The Sad Sack.” Sad Sack became a pop culture icon among the soldiers, many of whom identified with the character’s misadventures. After the war ended, Sad Sack was picked up by a syndicate and his popularity only grew as his struggle to adapt to civilian life was documented in newspapers and comic books.
12. Double Whammy
Has anyone ever stared at you so intently and creepily that you accused them of putting a whammy on you? You can thank Al Capp’s Evil-Eye Fleagle for that. His zoot-suited character Evil-Eye Fleagle was not a resident of Dogpatch (like the other Li’l Abner characters) but rather a hood who hailed from Brooklyn, New York. And Fleagle had a unique ability: He could shoot beams of destruction from his eyes. A regular whammy could knock a dozen men unconscious, while the dreaded double whammy could fell a skyscraper.