Monty Python in the Oxford English Dictionary
Today is the anniversary of the first broadcast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – a British sketch comedy series written and performed by Michael Palin, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle. The show’s linguistic legacy is captured in the OED‘s entry for the adjective Pythonesque, used to describe anything relating to, or reminiscent of, the show – especially its love of the absurd. Quotations listed here include references to Pythonesque silly walks, surreal humour, and obscure cheeses. The show’s exploitation of the visual comedy of the silly walk also appears in the OED entry for silly, in a quotation from a sketch in which Eric Idle applies to the Ministry of Silly Walks for financial assistance: ‘Well sir, I have a silly walk and I’d like to obtain a Government grant to help me develop it’.
Spam and cheese
Monty Python’s delight in the bizarre non-sequitur is witnessed by one of the show’s best-known catchphrases: ‘And now for something completely different’. Perhaps less obvious is the reference to Pythonesque funny cheeses; this recalls a sketch situated in a cheese shop, in which John Cleese rattles off a list of increasingly obscure cheeses in an attempt to find something that the shop actually stocks, while Michael Palin, as the shop-owner, comes up with increasingly unconvincing excuses. The cheese shop sketch reappears in the OED entry for Red Leicester, with the quotation ‘I’m afraid we’re fresh out of Red Leicester, sir’. Sadly, there is no entry (as yet) for Venezuelan Beaver Cheese – the one fictional cheese to appear in the sketch.
A modern usage credited to Monty Python in OED is the use of spam to refer to unwanted email and other electronic nuisance messages. This usage derives from a sketch set in a cafe in which Spam – a tinned luncheon meat – forms the main ingredient of every dish on the menu and so cannot be avoided – you can find out more in a recent Oxford Dictionaries video. Another entry in OED that is credited to the series is the phrase nudge, nudge (wink wink), an interjection implying a ‘cheeky, conspiratorial, or mischievous insinuation or innuendo’. The first use of the phrase is quoted from a sketch in which Eric Idle accosts an unsuspecting stranger with a series of suggestive questions: ‘Is your wife a..goer..eh? Know what I mean? Know what I mean? Nudge nudge. Nudge, nudge… Your wife interested in er..photographs, eh? Know what I mean?.. Nudge nudge. Snap snap. Grin, grin, wink, wink, say no more’. ‘I’m afraid we don’t have a camera’, responds the deadpan Terry Jones – entirely failing to follow the gist of the questioning.
A delight in linguistic play
Other references to Monty Python in OED entries testify to the show’s delight in linguistic play and breakdowns in communication. For example, the entry for bally – a now rather old-fashioned euphemistic alternative to bloody – quotes a sketch in which a Squadron Leader’s report is so loaded with RAF slang that it is met with blank incomprehension by his colleagues: ‘Bally Jerry pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie’. Problems in communication are at the heart of a sketch in which a Hungarian John Cleese’s attempts to buy cigarettes using a phrase book result in bizarre phrases like ‘my hovercraft is full of eels’. The unintentional humour of the faulty phrasebook belongs to the tradition of English as She is Spoke, named after a Portuguese-English phrase book published in 1855; its French author – who apparently knew no English – simply translated a Portuguese-French original word-for-word. The result is a collection of the bizarrely unidiomatic and downright surreal; under ‘familiar phrases’ we find such everyday sayings as ‘These apricots and these peaches make me and to come water in mouth’, and ‘That are the dishes who you must be and to abstain’.
The OED entry for Polly as a conventional or pet name for a parrot includes a reference to what is probably the most famous of all Monty Python sketches, in which John Cleese attempts to return a dead parrot to a pet shop. The OED quotation cites Cleese’s response to the shopkeeper’s claim that the parrot is merely resting: ‘Hello Polly, Polly..Polly Parrot, wake up. Polly… Now that’s what I call a dead parrot’. The dead parrot sketch is a masterpiece of the show’s trademark verbal pyrotechnics, in which synonyms are piled on top of each other – here ways of describing something that is dead: ‘it’s passed on. This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot’.