Chaucer, Rabelais, BALZAC: A Music Man Glossary

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man contains dozens of words and phrases that most of us have never used or even heard, many of them things that Willson himself must have heard growing up in turn of the century Iowa. I so often get emails asking about one or more of these, so I figured, let's get them all together in one list.

The movie version changed some of these references, fearing the audience wouldn't know them. But as the show proves, it's not important for the audience to know every reference -- it's just important for this world we create onstage feels honest and authentic to the audience. As long as the actors know and understand all the references, it will contribute to the "reality" of this fictional version of 1912 Iowa.

Below is a list of those oddities and what they mean, along with some other references you may not know... Enjoy!

kibitzing -- talking, joking, chitchatting

notion salesman -- a guy who sells small personal items

button-hook -- a small metal hook for pulling buttons through buttonholes.

hard goods & soft goods -- Hard goods are durable merchandise, like cars, machinery, furniture, appliances, etc. Soft goods are merchandise that isn’t as durable, like clothing, rugs, and other textiles.

noggin -- a small cup or mug of wine, usually a quarter-pint.

piggin -- a small bowl with a ladle for serving cream.

firkin -- a small wooden tub for butter or lard.

hogshead -- a large container holding sixty-three gallons of wine.

cask -- a bottle of any size, but usually one holding liquor.

demijohn -- a large wine bottle with a narrow neck and usually a wicker enclosure around the bottom.

Model T Ford -- a very popular car. In 1912, U.S. auto makers were manufacturing 115,000 new cars a month, about a quarter of them Ford Model Ts. Ten years later, 50% of the cars in America were Model Ts.

Uneeda Biscuit -- soda crackers introduced in 1889 by National Biscuit Company (now better known as Nabisco), the first crackers to be sold packaged with a brand name instead of just out of a cracker barrel. This marketing experiment paid off and by 1900, Uneeda Biscuits were selling more than ten million packages a month, while all other brands of packaged crackers combined totaled only 40,000 packages a month.

Mail Pouch – a brand of chewing tobacco

teirce -- a wine cask holding forty-two gallons.

mandolin -- a stringed instrument (like a very small guitar) shaped like a pear

Jews-harp – a small metal musical instrument you hold between your teeth and pluck (sometimes de-racialized as a "juice harp")

tarred and feathered -- covered with tar and feathers (which is often deadly) as punishment

rode out on a rail -- banished from a community, as punishment (often after being tarred and feathered), often literally carried out on a fence rail

two-bit -- cheap (literally twenty-five cents)

thimble-rigger -- con man or thief

Hawkeyes -- residents of Iowa

livery Stable -- stable where horses are kept and hired out

billiards -- a table game like pool, without pockets

Horse sense -- practical common sense

three-rail billiard shot -- a shot that banks off three sides of the billiards table

balkline game -- billiards

pinch-back suit -- a suit with a coat that is gathered in the back, the sign of a city slicker

Jasper -- slang word for a (usually) a white guy who is simple or naive

Dan Patch -- a champion harness racing horse at the turn of the century. Thoroughbred saddled horse racing came to America from the British aristocracy, so it was considered elitist. Harness racing, in which the jockey rode behind the horses in a cart, was considered more the sport of the working class.

frittern -- frittering – wasting time

beefsteak -- a slice of beef for frying

cistern -- a tank for storing water that had to be kept full (by pouring water into it manually) for the family to use, before people had indoor plumbing

knickerbockers -- knee pants that gather at the knee, worn by young boys at the turn of the century.

Bevo -- a brand of non-alcoholic near-beer, from Anheuser-Busch, but it wasn't introduced till four years after our story is set...

Cubebs and Tailor-mades -- various kinds of hand-rolled cigarettes. Cigarettes were illegal (and considered highly immoral) in Iowa at that time.

Sen-Sen -- a popular breath freshener, very small but very strong.

arm'ry -- armory -- headquarters for a National Guard unit

libertine -- morally or sexually unrestrained

scarlet -- adulterous. It refers to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.

ragtime -- syncopated jazz music, popular at the turn of the century, so called because of "ragged" (off-the-beat) style

dime Novel -- cheap, paperback adventure novels, in vogue from the 1850s through the 1920s.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang -- a racy monthly humor magazine first published in 1919, which reached a circulation of 425,000 in 1923. (Technically, this reference is anachronistic, since the show is set in 1912.)

Balzac -- Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), a French novelist

Paul Bunyan -- a giant from American folklore

Saint Pat -- St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, a missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland

Noah Webster -- (1758-1843) American essayist and lexicographer, who created one of the earliest American dictionaries

cross-hand -- a piano piece that requires one hand crossing over the other to play a note or chord

"This Ruby Hat of Omar Kay-ay-ay"- -- The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, erotic 12th century Persian poetry

stereopticon -- a slide projector with two light sources, so the pictures appear to fade from one to the next. Also, a hand-held device that lets the user look at two identical pictures at the same time, giving it a three-dimensional effect.

tablow -- tableau -- a grouping of people in costumes to create a still "picture"

Springfield Rifle -- a kind of rifle developed after the Civil War

ruffian -- a bully or lawless person

crick -- dialect for “creek”

pest house -- a hospital or house for people infected with pestilential diseases (bubonic plague, for example)

Pompy-eye -- Pompeii, an ancient city buried in the ash of an erupting volcano

Gilmore -- Patrick S. Gilmore (1829-1892), a famous Irish-American bandleader who wrote “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (under a pseudonym).

Liberati -- Alessandro Liberati (1847-1927), an Italian born cornet player, bandleader, and composer, who came to the U.S. in 1872 and played with many bands, including Gilmore's. He had his own touring band from 1889 to 1909, and was active in music (opera, other bands, teaching) until his death

Pat Conway -- (1867-1929) a conductor, bandleader, and teacher, who directed several bands from the 1890s until his death and was the founder of the Air Force Band in World War I. Conway and Sousa were friends, and their bands often performed together.

The Great Creatore -- Giuseppe Creatore (1871-1952), an Italian conductor and composer who brought a band to the U.S. in 1902 to tour. He was active as a conductor through the 1930s.

W.C. Handy -- (1873-1958) a famous American blues composer and bandleader, who wrote “St. Louis Blues.”

John Philip Sousa -- (1854-1932) a world-famous bandleader and composer, who was known as “the March King” for writing many of the famous marches that marching bands play today.

(Harold's comment in the intro to “76 Trombones” about all these famous musicians coming to town on the same day, appears to be a joke, although an obscure one. The joke is that it would have been essentially impossible for all these extremely famous men of widely varying ages to actually come to one small town, especially all on one day. Hill is just throwing out names that sound impressive, names that the River City townspeople might know from their piano sheet music.)

cornet -- a different version of a trumpet, shorter in length (the same amount of tubing, just wrapped around more), with a longer bell and a somewhat darker sound.

tympani -- big bass drums

horse platoons -- military units of horses (in this case, used for a parade)

euphonium -- like a baritone, which is itself like a small version of the tuba, but the euphonium has a larger opening in the bell and produces a mellower sound and better low notes than the baritone.

Harch -- variant of “march”

Frank Gotch and Strangular Lewis -- two early 20th-century American wrestlers

Jeely Kly -- exclamation, variant of “Jesus Christ”

Perpetual Motion -- the theoretical ability of a mechanism to continue to move forever by itself without any loss of energy or speed. The joke here is that Tommy thinks he “nearly had” perpetual motion a couple times, which is impossible.

class of aught-five -- class of 1905

canoodlin' -- slang for romantic activity. According to Wesbter's (I love this), "The origins of canoodle are obscure. Our best guess is that it may come from an English dialect noun of the same spelling meaning "donkey," "fool," or "foolish lover," which itself may be an alteration of the word noodle, meaning "a foolish person." That noodle, in turn, may come from noddle, a word for the head. The guess seems reasonable given that, since its appearance in the language around the mid-19th century, canoodle has been most often used jocularly for playful public displays of affection by couples who are head over heels in love."

"For no Diana do I play faun" -- Diana is the Roman goddess of the hunt and the moon, and the faun is a mythological creature that is a man with ears, horns, tail and hind legs of a goat. This is probably a reference to the famous painting Diana and Her Nymphs Surprised by the Fauns (1638-40) by Peter Paul Rubens. Harold's line apparently means he's not chasing after any women.

Hester -- Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, who had to wear a red “A” in punishment for her adultery.

agog -- highly excited

on the que veev -- on alert, watchful, a corruption of qui vive, French for “who goes there?”

Pianola -- a brand of player pianos

Delsarte -- François Delsarte (1811-1871), a French musician and dance teacher who taught a dance and acting method based on the mastery of certain bodily attitudes and gestures. Look at the drawings, and see how the Ladies Auxiliary for the Classic Dance is trying to imitate these moves with their "Grecian Urn" performance.

Gilt-edge -- of the highest quality, literally edged with gold

Chaucer -- Geoffery Chaucer (1340-1400), English author and poet who wrote the very racy Canterbury Tales

Raballaise -- François Rabelais (1490-1553), a French satirist and humorist, who wrote the very racy Gargantua and Pantagruel, which many thought was obscene and blasphemous

Balzac -- Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), the notorious French novelist who wrote Droll Stories, a racy collection of thirty short stories

malfeasance -- wrongdoing. The joke here is that implication that Harold could get a permit for malfeasance.

flugelhorn -- like a cornet, but with a larger opening in the bell.

"Minute Waltz" -- famous waltz by Chopin which everyone assumes is meant to be played in a minute, but its title actually refers to it being small or miniature. Chopin's original title for the piece is "Waltz of the Little Dog."

Quaker -- a member of The Society of Friends, a religion that rejects luxuries, modern technology, and anything that isn’t mentioned in the Bible.

St. Bridget -- an Irish saint, who founded the first nunnery in Ireland

O'Clark, O'Mendez, O'Klein -- comic reference to three famous musicians who were not Irish, the famous cornet player Herbert L. Clarke, the famous Mexican trumpet player Rafael Mendez (another anachronism, since he was born only six years before our story), and apparently the famous Jewish trumpet player Manny Klein (but again, he was born only four years before our story).

St. Michael -- an Irish saint, who first brought formal education to Ireland in the fifth century

hod -- a portable trough

mavorneen -- mavourneen -- Irish word for “sweetheart,” derived from the Irish Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning "my beloved"

Tara’s Hall -- a music hall in Dublin

Hodado -- dialect for “how do you do”

Epworth League -- a Methodist youth organization, founded in 1889

Black Hole of Calcutta -- a small prison in India in which the more than a hundred Europeans were killed in 1756.

Wells Fargo Wagon -- a stagecoach delivery service started in 1851, which allowed mail order sales to flourish

mackinaw -- a thick, blanket-like coat, usually plaid, named for a kind of blanket that northern and western native Americans made.

double-boiler -- a small pot that fits into a bigger pot. Water is boiled in the bigger pot to cook things in the smaller pot.

D.A.R. -- The Daughters of the American Revolution, a patriotic women’s organization

"Minuet in G" -- very famous classical piece by Ludwig von Beethoven

Tempus fugits -- hurry up. It’s a Latin phrase meaning “time flies”

frazolagy -- phraseology, or choice of words

"Rustle of Spring" -- turn-of-the-century piano piece written by the Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, that was very popular in the US

Grecian Urn -- the ladies are doing interpretive dance, based on the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.

Shipoopi -- this is just a nonsense word

Capulets -- one of the warring families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Mississippi sturgeon -- a fish

Galileo -- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Italian physicist and astronomer, who figured out that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around.

Columbus -- Christopher Columbus (1446-1506), Italian navigator who is credited with discovering America.

Bach -- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), famous classical composer whose work is the basis for modern music theory.

Well-Tempered Clavichord -- refers to a famous piece of music by Bach, "The Well-Tempered Clavier." Both a clavichord and a clavier are early versions of a piano.

Redpath Circuit -- one of several vaudeville circuits in the U.S., a group of theatres to which performers would travel

Criminee -- a slang expression of dismay, a corruption of  "Christ"

Tintype -- an old-fashioned photograph

Hector Berlioz -- (1803-1869), French classical composer. (Harold couldn’t be getting a cable from him, since he had been dead for almost forty years.)

Cat-boat -- a small boat with one mast and one large sail.

Buster Brown -- a comic strip character

Privy -- outhouse

Shropshyre sheep -- English sheep known for very white wool and good meat

From time to time, I'm contacted by a dramaturg who wants to work with us, but I love doing this kind of research. As I write this, we recently closed the amazing Sweet Smell of Success, which was just loaded with 1950s New York references. It was so much fun discovering what they all meant and sharing that with the actors. Like I said above, understanding all that stuff is so key for the actors.

Right now, I'm reading everything I can about the culture and pop culture of the 1930s, as I start thinking about our upcoming production of Anything Goes later this season.

One of the great joys of this blog is being able to share cool stuff like this with so many people. Hope this list is entertaining and/or helpful...

Long Live the Musical!

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Jeff Baker | December 20, 2021 at 7:24 PM

I just looked up Mendez----although born in Mexico, he actually did live in Gary, Indiana for a while!