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Fake squid, psychiatric patients, and other Muppet meanings

By Mark Peters

With the arrival of the new Muppet movie, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Beaker, and our other felt friends are everywhere. There’s no escaping Jim Henson’s creations, and few of us would want to (unless the movie happens to suck, which is doubtful, given the stewardship of Jason Segel, who showed major Muppet mojo in the heartbreaking and spit-taking Forgetting Sarah Marshall). It’s a good time to look at the history of the word Muppet, which has some meanings that would make the Swedish Chef bork with outrage.

Thanks to interviews with Muppet creator Jim Henson, we know Muppet is not a blend of marionette and puppet, though that theory has been appearing since 1959, just four years after Henson invented the crew, who appeared in pre-Sesame Street and Muppet Show fare such as commercials for Wilkins coffee. I love this part of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of Muppet: “Any of a number of humorously grotesque glove puppets.” That phrasing seems humorously grotesque itself, but if it helps a Martian understand a Muppet, I guess it’s worthwhile.

In the eighties, the word took on several meanings. Since 1983, a muppet has been “A lure made to resemble a young squid.” I don’t want to give my enemies (arch or mortal) any ideas, but since calamari is squid, I’m pretty sure this kind of muppet could lure me anywhere. In British prison slang, a muppet is “A prisoner with psychiatric problems; a vulnerable inmate liable to be bullied or harassed by others.” As this 1998 use shows, Muppets aren’t the only Henson creation to carry this meaning: “Their favourite targets are the fraggles, the nonces and the muppets. But anyone showing tell-tale signs of fear is a target for Britain’s jail bullies.”

A muppet can also be an idiot, though I have no idea why, since the Muppets are among the least idiotic members of the puppet community (Elmo excluded). However, this part of the OED’s definition sort of rings true: “someone enthusiastic but inept; a person prone to mishaps through naivety.” With the exception of curmudgeons (RIP Andy Rooney) such as Oscar, Statler, and Waldorf, the Muppets are brimming with optimism from their pieholes to their puppetholes. Green’s Dictionary of Slang also has examples of muppet meaning a child or a cop.

These Muppet meanderings are similar to the meanings smurf has taken on over the years. While most know Smurfs as blue elves with a disturbingly low female population, other smurfs or smurfers make smurf dope: blue crystal meth. A smurf is also “an inexperienced or short prison officer,” as Green’s puts it, and a gay man who’s youngish and blonde. Plus, smurf is one of the most awesome euphemisms for the f-word in the known universe, as seen in words like clustersmurf, mothersmurfer, ratsmurf, and fan-smurfing-tastic. If I didn’t know better, I’d think smurf has an acronymic origin, like fubar and milf. Despite the PG origin, something about smurf feels blue in the naughty sense.

When a word is as fun to say as Smurf or Muppet, there’s no stopping how people will use it. Now that the Muppets are back, who knows what this mega-appealing word will soon describe? I have no idea, but let me suggest a meaning, Urban Dictionary-style, that I’ve used and suspect others use: “A harmless, lovable person.” I used this sense when I called my friend Neil a Muppet a few years ago, as Neil was stuck giving a presentation that typically made students reach for pitchforks and torches. This pernicious presentation made presenters long for a force field, or at least student-proof chicken wire. In calling Neil a Muppet, I meant to say he’s too friendly and non-threatening to get the Frankenstein’s monster treatment. It would be like lynching Kermit.

Mark Peters is a lexicographer, humorist, rabid tweeter, language columnist for Visual Thesaurus, and the blogger behind The Rosa Parks of Blogs and The Pancake Proverbs.

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