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Orphants to foster kids: a century of Annie

One of the best-known musicals of the 20th century is Annie, which tells the story of a plucky orphan girl who warms the hearts of all around her, and eventually finds a loving family of her own. The tale will be carried into the 21st century when the newest film adaptation (produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith; perhaps you’ve heard of them) is released on 19 December of this year. In honor of the long legacy of this famous story, here we take a look at the changing language of Annie.

Little orphant Allie

Speaking of long legacies, the 1977 musical Annie was not the first time the world had been introduced to the inspirational young character. The musical was based on an American comic strip entitled “Little Orphan Annie”. Well-known in its own time and called the most famous comic of 1937 by Fortune magazine, “Little Orphan Annie” ran for a whopping 86 years and even led to an equally famous radio show (religiously followed by Ralph in the 1983 film A Christmas Story). However, the story of Annie can be traced further back to a girl named Mary Alice Smith (nicknamed “Allie”), who inspired Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley to pen the poem “The Elf Child” in 1885. He would eventually rename it “Little Orphant Allie”.

“Orphant”? Not a typo—just a US regional variant spelling that has since fallen largely out of use, as have other variants orphaunt, orfant, and even orphing (among many others). However, a literal typo or typographical error did come into play with Riley’s poem when the name “Annie” was accidentally typeset instead of “Allie”. When the poem gained popularity, Riley decided to stick with the new name.

The original hard knocks

People looking for the familiar plot or song lyrics in the original poem will be disappointed: there is almost no resemblance between the Annie of the poem and Annie as she is popularly known today. The poem, like several of Riley’s others, is written in Hoosier dialect—the midland dialect of American English, or more specifically that from Indiana. In the poem, “little orphant Annie” tells stories to other orphaned children in which “gobble-uns” (goblins) steal poorly behaved children away (hence the original title “The Elf Child”). At the end of the didactic poem, Annie says

You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you
Don’t
Watch
Out!

However, like the Annie of the later comic strip, musical, and film adaptations, “little orphant Annie” is happy to take the “pore an’ needy” under her wing and to teach them what she knows.

Hoovervilles and Prohibition

Though the musical Annie opened on Broadway in 1977 and its film adaptation was released in 1982, the plot takes place in the 1930s. Apart from the clothing styles and the Hoovervilles, the song lyrics themselves—with many words unfamiliar to the modern English-speaker— are intended to transport audiences to the early 20th century.

Yank the whiskers from her chin!
Jab her with a safety-pin!
Make her drink a Mickey Finn!

Purportedly taking its name from the proprietor of a Chicago saloon who, in the early 20th century, was accused of poisoning customers with “knock-out drops”, a Mickey Finn is a surreptitiously drugged or doctored drink.

Every plot’s a dilly,
This we guarantee!

Dilly, an alteration of the first syllable of delightful or delicious, is a North American word for an excellent example of something.

You spend your evenings in the shanties,
Imbibing quarts of bathtub gin.
And here you’re dancing in your scanties.

To a modern-day reader, it may not be clear how much Daddy Warbucks is insulting Miss Hannigan in the song “Sign” from the 1982 film. When he accuses her of spending time in the shanties, he is probably referring to shantytowns: run-down areas consisting of large numbers of shanties, or small, crudely built shacks. These shantytowns (or Hoovervilles, as they were sometimes called, after the US President Herbert Hoover) were an all-too-familiar sight during the Great Depression, when as much as 25% of Americans were unemployed.

As for bathtub gin, readers familiar with the Prohibition era in the United States may know what it is—a concoction of spirits intended to simulate the taste of gin, representative of a time in which alcoholic drinks (rendered illegal by the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920) were often surreptitiously made in homes (and sometimes, presumably, in bathtubs). It goes without saying that, generally, the quality of “bathtub gin” was probably not very high.

Daddy Warbucks gets in one final jab by accusing Miss Hannigan of dancing around in her scanties, or brief underwear. (The word comes from scant + -y; scant is from the Old Norse word for “short”.) Interestingly, a modern word for a similar type of women’s underwear—panties—could be substituted here without sacrificing rhyme.

On the topic of modernizing lyrics, the upcoming movie Annie will debut such changes of its own; in the song “Hard-Knock Life”, what originally was

No one cares for you a smidge
When you’re in an orphanage

Comparison of 'foster child' to 'orphan' from 1800-2008
Comparison of ‘foster child’ to ‘orphan’ from 1800-2008

has been updated to

No one cares for you a bit
When you’re a foster kid

Here, bit may have replaced smidge as a better near rhyme, or it may been considered a safer bet in terms of plausible vocabulary for a 10-year-old in 2014 (it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that smidge is probably not in the parlance of today’s youth). As for the replacement of orphanage with “foster kid”, given that the new movie doesn’t involve an orphanage—instead, Annie is in a foster home—this change is practical.

However, it can also be noted that fostering has gradually taken the place of institutional care and sociocultural developments have shaped the concept of child welfare as we understand it today. For these reasons in part, it may not be surprising that the use of the word “foster child” has been increasing somewhat steadily over the last two centuries, while use of the word orphan (though still more common overall) has dwindled over the same period of time.

Tomorrow

Though Annie has been around long enough for “orphant” to eventually turn into “foster kid”, the fact remains that American audiences are perennial lovers of the rags-to-riches theme. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the story of Annie is just as well-known today as when Ralph was racing to the radio—or that virtually everyone you know can sing at least a few bars of “Tomorrow”. It probably goes without saying that we’ll see many more iterations of Annie in the century to come.

A version of this article originally appeared on the OxfordWords blog.

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