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A Muppet, moi?

The word muppet was actually coined by Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) currently dates the word to 1955 when the Muppets first came to fame in US TV advertising. As the Muppets feature elements of both hand puppets and marionettes, it was suggested as early as 1959 that the name was a portmanteau. However according to Henson this connection was apparently arbitrary as he chose the name as it “was simply a word that sounded good to him”.

It’s fair to say that many of the Muppets are characterized as vaguely ridiculous or nonsensical and so perhaps it should be no surprise that, despite their success, the word is now sometimes used with a derogatory implication. If you call someone a “muppet” you’re unlikely to be saying they resemble Kermit the Frog, or have a visage reminiscent of the Great Gonzo, but rather that they’re incompetent or a fool. It can also mean an enthusiastic but inept person or someone prone to mishaps through naivety; this sense is first found in the Guardian in 1989, according to OED research: “I’m a muppet. In fact, I’m definitely a muppet. I couldn’t find the entrance to the restaurant that night for a start.” There are other senses too. For example, if you’re a keen angler you may also know the term muppet as referring to a lure made to resemble a young squid, used in sea fishing, but this again came into use long after muppet was coined by Henson.

Naming the Muppets

The Muppets themselves also have weird and wonderful names, as you might expect, from the alliterative Rizzo the Rat to the onomatopoeic Rowlf the Dog and the ridiculously named monster-like Sweetums. My favourite Muppet is undoubtedly Gonzo. Who wouldn’t love a blue puppet who, among other roles, starred as a stunt man, a daredevil, and of course Charles Dickens, and describes himself as a “whatever” when asked what creature he is supposed to resemble. The word gonzo is used to describe something as extravagant, bizarre, or foolish, particularly noted in gonzo journalism, with its characteristic exaggerated and fictionalized style. Seems apt, but regardless Gonzo is still my favourite.

Kermit the Frog, perhaps the most famous of all the Muppets, has a name of Irish and Manx origin from the gaelic surname Mac Dhiarmaid meaning ‘son of Diarmaid’. The first name Kermit was also borne by a son of the American president Theodore Roosevelt, and is indeed more prevalent in the US than anywhere else. Kermit can also be found in the world of computing in the 1980s, in a now seldom used sense meaning “a protocol and set of utility programs that allows a computer to support terminal access across a network, and to carry out file transfers”. Although probably inspired by the Muppets, a backronym was created for KERMIT: ‘KL10 Error-Free Reciprocal Microprocessor Interchange over TTY lines’. I’ll stick to the frog.

We are all familiar with the sense of frog (which dates back to Old English) that Kermit represents, but there is also an obsolete sense of the verb frog which rather aptly means to make a fool of oneself, noted in the OED from 1605. And from one half of the Muppets’ answer to Brangelina to the other. The tumultuous relationship between Kermit and Miss Piggy is a frequent storyline in the Muppets. Miss Piggy, the star of the show (at least in her eyes), has even found her way into a quotation in the OED for the word porcinity.  Porcinity means piggishness but in this case it is being used as a humorous title for Miss Piggy, “Her Porcinity” – the your highness of the swine world.  What’s more, according to the Oxford Essential Dictionary of Foreign Terms in English, her diva-like dialogue in her pretentious use of moi when referring to herself, is said to have popularized the term. As well as influencing the English language in these small ways I can certainly say that Miss Piggy’s wise words have changed my life. “Never eat more than you can lift.” is a mantra I live my life by.

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