Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Let’s bury Patsy:

Dupe, booby, fall-guy, patsy, stooge and sucker (as nouns) form a tight Venn-diagram of connotation. Chaucer’s Summoner could “pull a finch”. Dekker’s Honest Whore could “pluck those ganders” and recognise a “pigeon” (who, in later metaphor, also is frequently “plucked”). In Shakespeare, Richard III identifies his victims as “simple gulls”; Maria is Fabian’s “favourite gull-catcher” (the “gull” being Malvolio); Benedick suspects Don Pedro’s “gull”; and Sonnet 86 fears the rival poet “gulls … with intelligence”. However, the current usage, as in The Guardian [15 August 2006] is:
Don’t treat us like patsies, say Muslim MPs.

This was challenged with the Readers’ Editor []:
Are you happy with the "ethnic slur" [see] in the use of "patsy"?
The term is not directly attributed in either the headline or the text.

Within the hour, Murray Armstrong, the Reader's Editor, replied twice:
Many words have strange etymological beginnings. I don't think there is any such connotation today. Collins dictionary (our back-up if our style book is silent) defines patsy as a person who is easily cheated, victimised etc or a scapegoat. It says the origin is 20th century and is unknown.
I'll ask the reporter who wrote the piece who used the word. It wouldn't be in quotes otherwise. I fancy it has come from one of the MPs and a piece of clumsy editing has excised it.

David Hencke tells me that Sadiq Khan MP used the word.

Armstrong has quoted Collins, almost verbatim:
patsy noun -sies (Slang) chiefly US and Canadian
1. a person who is easily cheated, victimized, etc.
2. a scapegoat
History: C20: of unknown origin.

Meanwhile, wikipedia asserts that:
The term is widely regarded as an ethnic slur, in light of the likely theory that it arose in the mid-19th century when East Coast urban centers in the U.S. included a notable abundance of recent migrants from rural Ireland, among whom the nickname "Patsy" (for Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland) was relatively common.
What I found reinforced my suspicions and led me to supplement, at some length, the wikipedia entry.

There are other suggested etymologies for “patsy”. The American Heritage Dictionary has it:
perhaps from the Italian pazzo, from the Old Italian paccio.
Similarly, the website
"fall guy, victim of a deception," 1903, of unknown origin, possibly an alteration of It. pazzo "madman" (see patch (2)), or south It. dial. paccio "fool." Another theory traces it to Patsy Bolivar, character in an 1880s minstrel skit who was blamed whenever anything went wrong.

I see two problems with pazzo. The “patsy” is a simpleton, an easy mark, not demented or insane. Furthermore, the early usages of “patsy” are all from the United States, and all capitalised. The date given for the word’s currency coincides nicely with Billy B Van (real name William Webster Vandegrift) playing “Patsy Bolivar” in Broadway vaudeville comedies The Errand Boy [1904] and Patsy in Politics [1907]. Next, I went hunting “Patsy Bolivar”.

The American Dialect Society had preceded me, and found H F Reddall [Fact, Fancy & Fable, 404] from 1889:
A party of minstrels in Boston, about twenty years ago, had a performance... When the pedagogue asked in a rage, ‘Who did that?’, the boys would answer, ‘Patsy Bolivar!’... The phrase ... spread beyond the limits of the minstrel performance, and when a scapegoat was alluded to, it was in the name of ‘Patsy Bolivar’ … the one who is always blamed for everything.
This sounds similar to the Marx Brothers’ stand-by routine, all the way from Fun in Hi Skule [1910, where Harpo is “Patsy Brannigan”] to Horse Feathers [1932]. “Patsy”, then, could be entirely theatrical, a successor to Puck’s:
… crew of patches, rude mechanicals,
That work for bread upon Athenian stalls.

The OED explains that Sexton, Cardinal Wolsey’s “domestic fool” was known as “Patch”, a close relative of Harlequin in the commedia dell’arte, no doubt.

Significantly, though, Reddall seems to take "patsy" back at least to the 1870s, closer to the peak of Irish migration to the United States. Sure enough, the Chicago Daily Tribune [20 April 1879] reports the
fining of Patsy Bolivar and Frank Carney, vagrants, $100 each.
If the judge and clerks missed the joke, the Los Angeles Times [23 May 1885] didn’t, quoting that
Judge Field is the ‘Patsy Bolivar’ of the California Democracy.
Furthermore, the OED's recent revisions link “Patsy” with “Pat” and “Paddy”, the stereotype of the bogtrotter just off the boat. Immediately after defining "Paddy" as "Nickname for an Irishman", the OED explains "to do the paddy over" someone as "to bamboozle, humbug", citing Blackwood's Magazine of 1821. Noel Ignatiev [How the Irish became White, 1995] illustrates this—and more—with a cartoon from 1852:
Patrick, (just landing.) “By my Sowl, you’re black, old fellow! How long have ye bin here¿” [sic]
Nigger, (imitating the brogue.) “Jist three months, my honey!”
Pat. “By the powers, I’ll go back to Tipperary in a jiffy! I’d not be so black as that fur all the whiskey in Roscrea!”

It may also be significant that Bolivar appears repeatedly as a ship-name in emigrant lists (and, equally as sordid, as a tramp-steamer in Kipling).

“Patsy”, therefore, had a troubled youth—but, surely, as Murray Armstrong indicates, has grown into a useful adjunct to social discourse. Well, not exactly … he (for this is no Ms—be she Cline, Kensit, Stone or Mink—being discussed) continues to have disreputable associates.

This seems to be the term of choice among conspiracy-theorists. Mark Lane (Plausible Denial; 1991) had Lee Harvey Oswald as a CIA “patsy”. Brian Desborough has “patsies” in Sirhan Sirhan and OJ Simpson. And… yawn … so on. Of itself, that should not greatly bother us, until we experiment with Islamophilia. Suddenly, all becomes clear. Will Wallace notes:
Karl Rove just happenned [sic] (wink wink nudge nudge) to arrive in London just in time for British authorities to effect the arrest of Muslim Patsies in the never ending Halliburton plan to control Middle East Oil.
Glad to be reminded of that, Will. And let’s not forget the other “patsies”:
The 7/7 London bombers were all “patsies”:
How very convenient that all of the suspected patsies should have been blown up in their own attacks
[Steve Watson: just one of 18,400 Google “hits” for “7/7+patsies”]
As were those of 9/11:
the Saudis were the patsies of choice for the mainstream "critics"
[Chaim Kupferberg: one of 91,400 “hits” for “9/11+patsies”]
a Spanish judge passed down sentences on 29 Moroccon [sic] patsies for their alleged yet wholly uncorroborated part in the Madrid Train bombings
[Joe Quinn: one of 12,500 “hits” for “Spain+train+patsies”].
Etc, etc.

So, can we now deep-six that tired, racist and sullied metaphor, “patsy”? And can someone have a quiet word with Sadiq Khan, MP, about guilt-by-association? Sphere: Related Content

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