Mark Peters, the genius behind the blog Wordlustitude in addition to being a Contributing Editor for Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, and a language columnist for Good, and the author of Yada, Yada, Doh!: 111 TV Words That Made the Leap from the Screen to Society is our guest blogger this week. Check out his past OUPblog posts here. In the post below Peters explores the phrase “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”
There’s something about breakfast cereal that seeps into the deepest regions of the brain as well as the bowels. Colorful characters like Count Chocula, Cap’n Crunch, Tony the Tiger, and Toucan Sam dazzle the eye, while the weapons-grade sugar baffles the body and disables the mind. Perhaps the real reason the cereal-swilling, 4-bowls-a-day TV version of Jerry Seinfeld couldn’t keep a girlfriend had nothing to do with immaturity or comedy: Who could maintain equilibrium, much less a relationship, with a toxic overload of cereal coursing through the veins, like Frankenberry whitewater-rafting through Deliverance?
But words are my business, not who’s been eating their Wheaties, and the words I’ve been pondering lately are Sonny the cuckoo bird’s Dennis Hopper-esque admission “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.” That catchphrase has become a snowclone—one of those repeatable, adaptable, fill-in-the-blank idioms such as “Not your father’s X,” “Post-traumatic X disorder,” “I for one welcome our new X overlords,” and “X is the new Y”. The Cocoa Puffs snowclone creates memorable phrases such as “cuckoo for cuckold puffs” and “cuckoo for robo-puffs”, comprising a prolific and undocumented slice of insanity-describing slang that, I reckon, is as fun as a monkey in a top hat juggling slinkies.
Before we put on our rubber booties to romp through the snowclone drifts, cuckoo and Cocoa Puffs deserve their own paragraphs. In the cereal bowl of popular culture, Cocoa Puffs is as well-milked as a cereal gets. Chuck Klosterman titled a book of pop culture essays Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. William Shatner’s Denny Crane, so fond of battily repeating his own name, has been known to repeat “Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs!” On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon said of guest Jennifer Anniston’s character, “She is staunchly in favor of Cocoa Puffs”—a leading contender for paraphrase of the year. Cocoa Puffs have also been mentioned on episodes of Family Guy and Robot Chicken, and an episode of Gilmore Girls is titled “After-hours Cocoa Puffs”. Like crack, Cocoa Puffs is more than just a dangerous substance that destroyed the fabric of American cities—it’s a common slang term for insanity. (In songs by The Black-eyed Peas and Nelly, Cocoa Puffs also has sexual and drug-related meanings that are less common and even less recommended by the FDA).
Cocoa Puffs didn’t ride the bus to loony-land alone; they flew on the wings of cuckoo, which referred only to the monotonous-sounding bird until the 16th century, according to our friend the Oxford English Dictionary. Cuckoo then began describing non-feathered folks who appeared similarly goofy—though no cuckoo people have been documented laying eggs in other birds’ nests, thus far. Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the use of cuckoo as an adjective meaning crazy back to at least 1906, while filling in a few more blanks: an insane asylum has been known as a cuckoo academy, cuckoo farm, cuckoo house, and cuckoo’s nest, after the book and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Powerful liquor is cuckoo juice, and someone whapped into unconsciousness or amazement has been knocked cuckoo. Maybe I’ve been putting too much cuckoo juice on my cornflakes, but I long for the day when a dictionary adds my favorite nickname for both George W. Bush and my Uncle Ernie: the Homer-Simpson-coined Commander Cuckoo-Bananas.
Cuckoo and Cocoa Puffs began their life together in the early sixties, a union born during a meeting Jim Hall describes in Mighty Minutes: An Illustrated History of Television’s Best Commercials. After writer Gene Cleaves introduced the bird and catchphrase, his fellow word-man Jack Keil was more demonstrative, performing “…a maniacal dance, flailing his arms and shouting at the top of his voice: ‘I’M CUCKOO FOR COCOA PUFFS! I’M CUCKOO FOR COCOA PUFFS!’ Keil was so enthused that he demonstrated the character, screaming and kicking, atop the boardroom table at General Mills, suitably impressing the startled client.” Bet they don’t teach you those moves at the finest advertising schools and dance academies.
Like all snowclones, the Cocoa Puffs template is adaptable—it would have to be to accommodate such far-flung versions as Cassadine crazy puffs and racist/anti-semitic puffs. That said, some writers are mindful of the sound of cocoa, creating crack-o puffs, Islam-o puffs, and nuke-o puffs, plus Caruso puffs, Clinton puffs, Corgan puffs, Cruise puffs and Katie puffs, which are enjoyed by enthusiasts of David Caruso, Bill Clinton, Billy Corgan, Tom Cruise, and Katie Holmes. Weirdly, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s girlfriend Jessica Simpson is described by a blogger as “cuckoo for Tony puffs,” not Romo puffs, which would have been a natural substitute for cocoa.
In my searches, with only Google and a prayer to guide me, I found afro puffs, cicada puffs, cocaine puffs, CO2 puffs, commie puffs, cosmo puffs, cuckold puffs, Motrin puffs, Palin puffs, poopoo puffs, rococo puffs, and the fifteen examples below. The subject matter of the Cocoa puffs snowclone is all over the map, but a few uses fall off the map and onto the floor and down into places that “disturbing juxtaposition” doesn’t quite cover. I’m thinking of “cuckoo for genocide puffs”—a term used by a denier of the Armenian genocide. Don’t expect that line to come out of Sonny’s beak in our lifetime.
As you can see from the previous paragraphs and the following list, there have been enough linguistic puffs to stock the cereal aisle in heaven—or hell, depending on your taste. Perhaps the brain trust at Kellogg’s or General Mills will soon be sending me a finder’s fee, because some of these tasty terms would make some tasty cereal, and I’m almost serious about that.
You see, on the ice planet of Buffalo—a frigid land where my nose for snowclones was honed and frozen as a callow youth and shallow graduate student—I remember how Buffalo Bills fans went bonkers in 1998 for quarterback Doug Flutie. Part of the city-wide mania for all things Flutie was the creation of Flutie Flakes—a real cereal that Western New Yorkers still recall fondly, especially as the current Bills continue to embarrass themselves and all they hold dear.
If Flutie Flakes existed, why not Money Puffs for the rich, Jesus Puffs for the Christian, Yoga Puffs for the limber, and Cuckold Puffs for the unlucky in marriage? Could a cereal-based stimulus be just what the soggy economy needs, with targeted puffs for ravenous consumers?
You make the call, massive breakfast-cereal empires of America. You make the call.
“Spitting LSD on unsuspecting people as a DIY form of MKULTRA is an idea so twisted Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, who was cuckoo for acid puffs, would smile in approval.”
(June 22, 2008, Grind and Punishment)
“Since that first trip I’ve been hooked. The entire group went back again in 2000 and my husband and I have taken the kids on our own and the sights, sounds and memories are never too far away. [p] So that’s us, we’re cuckoo for Disney puffs.”
(June 14, 2002, rec.arts.disney.parks)
“Cuckoo for Google Puffs [p] How high will Google stock go? Who knows, but it was trading at nearly $425 today. (Down to $408 as of right now).”
(Nov. 29, 2005, Search Trends—Search Engine Marketing)
Heath Ledger puffs
“Brett’s Rating: 96/100 jokers … three of which are enthusiastically pictured below. That’s right, I’m cuckoo for heath ledger-puffs.”
(July 16, 2008, whosinthenews)
“Frank is cuckoo for immortality puffs. Neil seems to think the book was tongue-in-cheek, but physicists I have talked to seem to think he’s gone well off the deep end. Chalmer’s zombies aren’t kookery at all. They’re a clever philosophical device of the sort you expect to see from philosophers all the time. I happen to think that his zombies *are* logically impossible, but that’s a different argument.”
(April 28, 2004, comp.ai.philosophy)
“Miley Cyrus is cuckoo for Jesus Puffs”
(March 26, 2008, KojackFull)
“That said, there’s a price to pay for all that majesty: Park City is crazy ass expensive and that filters down, no matter the ninja-ry I pull off in budgeting. We get great deals because we go back year after year and we’re based at a venue that’s like family to us, but we still pay more for 1/7th of the space we rent for two weeks in Park City then we do for 12 months of office space in Los Angeles. That’s just how it breaks down in them snowy hills; it’s kookoo for money puffs, y’all.”
(Nov. 26, 2008, Slamdance Film Festival 2009)
“I tried to put my finger on what made this episode better for me than the last three, because on the surface, the dilemmas they use are not exactly that wise for Chloe and Clark. Vetting freaks of the week? I mean, come on. Has there ever been a freak other than Clark who wasn’t a member of the [Justice League of America] who didn’t immediately go cuckoo for murder puffs?”
(date unknown, Neal Bailey, Superman Homepage)
“There’s no subtlety, no standing in front of the work saying ‘gee, I wonder what he’s trying to say?’ I mean, baby Hitlers surrounded by fat wealthy men, grown Hitlers knawing on leg bones amongst a pile of skulls labeled ‘Belgium,’ ‘France,’ ‘Yugoslavia,’ ‘Poland.’ I get the impression that Erró isn’t cuckoo for Nazi puffs.”
(June 19, 2004, Alaina Hardie, nerdgrrl.org)
“Jeffrey Goldberg, Neuropundit? The Atlantic goes cuckoo for neuro-puffs.”
(June 18, 2008, Daniel Engber, Slate)
“This sensation is a polarity shift from the full-throttle outrage that usually prompts one of my month-long news fasts. I am still cuckoo for news puffs; they just don’t fill my attention as they did before. I am finally disinterested.”
(June 20, 2007, Deep Fried)
“Yet that is a bizarro version of what actually happened. Sen. Clinton, apparently fearful of being branded as unwise by the same media airheads legitimizing this President’s nuclear ‘bunker buster’ initiative, decided that she too had to be cuckoo for nuke-o-puffs.”
(Oct. 1, 2007, What You Should Think)
“i like the crazy people [p] i saw an old man with a horn on monday…i think he’s the last unicorn [p] and this old lady was cuckoo for racist/anti-semitic puffs [p] some girl got on the bus, accidentally stepped on someones toes and then crazy old lady said “you stepped on her toes, you must be russian, because russians are EVIL” [p] so entertaining”
(July 3, 2008, Yelp)
“The thing Brooke Shields said about aliens (‘he should stick to protecting the Earth from aliens’ or something similar)–some people have said that’s a swipe at Scientology, but I think they’re in error. It seems clear to me that she’s talking about his new movie. Of course, we all know that he’s cuckoo for Scientology Puffs, but I don’t think that’s what she was getting at. She’s too nice to make fun of someone’s ‘religion’ (ahem).”
(June 6, 2005, Conversations about Famous People)
“Michael Caine stars as Jon Lansdale, a comic strip artist going through some tough times with his ‘cuckoo for yoga puffs’ wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci).”
(Dec. 4, 2007, Final Girl)