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Jack Smith

'Pullet surprise' mystery deepens: Malapropism or gin--it's a case of boos

February 27, 1985|JACK SMITH

The plot thickens as to the mysterious origin of that classic schoolboy's malapropism--"pullet surprise."

It is said to have been written by a high school English student in the following sentence: "In 1957, Eugene O'Neill won a Pullet Surprise."

But which student, in what school, in what era?

As I said here the other day, I was troubled by an Associated Press story out of Orange Park, Fla., in which an Orange Park high school English teacher, Jim Mattson, claimed that he had been collecting malapropisms for four years, and that the "pullet surprise" sentence turned up in one of his students' papers.

"I literally fell out of my chair laughing," Mattson said, "I was laughing so hard I was crying. I showed it to my wife and tears came down her cheeks."

As I pointed out, "Pullet Surprises" had been the title of a book published in 1969 by Amsel Greene, an English teacher for 30 years in Helena, Mont.; it was a collection of the malapropisms and other blunders her students had produced, and the title was derived from the sentence in question.

In 1982 I had also used the phrase in the title of my book "How to Win a Pullet Surprise," with permission from the late Miss Greene's publishers.

First, Jackie Williams of Huntington Park points out that in her introduction Amsel Greene wrote: "These are pullet surprises. The name is the unwitting contribution of a high school student whose teacher shared with me a paper in which he had written, 'In 1957 Eugene O'Neill won a Pullet Surprise.' "

That is correct. So it was not one of her own students; and in stating that, I think Miss Greene is simply proving her integrity.

By the way, the examples Miss Greene was referring to were these:

Derelict , a queer way of speaking: "We found it hard to understand his Scottish derelict."

Amnesia , a medicine: "The doctor said to take some milk of amnesia."

Cursory , inclined to swear: "Fred's mother used to wash out his mouth with soap to curb his cursory tendencies."

Diffident , return on an investment: "He expects to retire and live on his diffident."

Cynic , picturesque: "The Rocky Mountain road was the most cynic of our entire trip."

To date the phrase even further back, Mike Brennan of Pacific Palisades writes that in the book "Bigger and Better Boners: An Up-to-date Compendium of Errors Compiled from Classrooms and Examination Papers by Alexander Abington," 1952, he finds this: "A pullet surprise is given in America every year for the best writings."

"While not having the specificity of the quotation printed in your column," Brennan notes, "it does, of course, contain the germ of it."

Abington makes no attribution, but in his foreword says that the boners are " authentic student errors, not made-up gags or wisecracks, and have all come to us from apparently reliable sources. Grateful acknowledgment is made to the hundreds of teachers who have given of their best for this volume. . . . "

It might well have come from Miss Greene. She had been teaching and collecting since the 1930s.

"My father attended Helena High in the late '30s," writes Linda M. Lohn, instructor in the Freshman Writing Program at UCLA. "Amsel Greene was one of his teachers, and after I graduated from Stanford and began to teach English, he sent me a copy of 'Pullet Surprises.' "

She notes that a student would have had to live in a rural environment, and to know what a pullet was, to coin that malapropism. "Urban education may encourage claims that 'Jane Eyre was on heroin,' instead of that she was a heroine, but it is unlikely to allow students to confuse a young hen with a literary award.

"The charm of Miss Greene's students, or of Mr. Mattson's, or of my own, is that they tend to rely upon vocabulary they know to form new terms. . . . Perhaps Orange Park, Fla., is a semi-rural community, as Helena was before World War II."

By the way, Lohn chastises me, as have several others, for my own boner in placing Helena in Wyoming instead of Montana. "Helena," she points out, "boasts the copper-clad capitol dome, the state legislature, and the Helena High School Bengals."

"Some of those malapropisms that the Florida teacher recently claimed for his students are older than he is," writes George W. Feinstein of Altadena, "and you can take that for granite.

"The phrase 'pullet surprise' in particular has a beard on it. Art Linkletter dredged it up in 'Kids Sure Rite Funny!' (1962); Norton Mockridge quoted it in 'Fractured English' (1965); then Amsel Greene claimed it for her students in 'Pullet Surprises' (1969). My theory is that the gaffe was committed in May, 1917, on the morning after the first Pulitzer prizes were awarded."

Eugene B. Wilstach of Murietta Hot Springs also finds some of Mattson's boners a little hoary:

" 'A virgin forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot' is not a malapropism; it is a mixed metaphor. I first heard that one when I was about 10 years old, which would mean that it has been around for 65 years at least."

Whatever its source, the phrase pullet surprise is now in the public domain. I have received two Hallmark Lite cards ("A third less serious than regular greeting cards"). On the outside is a golden loving cup with a chicken on top, and the word: "Congratulations!"

Inside, it says: "You just won the Pullet Surprise!"

Recognition at last.

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