Monday, March 24, 2014

Unintended Adult Humor from Regional Newspapers

19351106 MalFarmer earthquake headlineThis headline from the Malone Farmer says it all about the hardy folks of the Adirondacks: we don’t fear earthquakes, we embrace them! While it’s good for a laugh today, don’t bother calling the editor with your critique: that item appeared in 1935, when the words “rouse” and “arouse” were used interchangeably. They both meant to wake someone up, or to get excited about something in general. Since that time, the word used in the headline is mainly connected with one particular type of excitement.

While skimming old texts and newspapers from around the world, I often encounter amusing or downright funny headlines or passages like that, even though they weren’t meant to be funny at the time. The effect is the same, whether they were misprints, understatements, overstatements, or a change in meaning of certain words or phrases with the passage of time.

There are plenty of other examples from the Adirondack region. Similar to the one above is an excerpt from a weekly serial, “Stanton Wins,” appearing in some North Country newspapers. Of the main character it was written, “When the first course of the luncheon was placed before them, Stanton aroused himself.” Again, the meaning has … well, let’s just say it has deviated somewhat since then, and leave it at that.

For understatement, it would be hard to compete with a story in Potsdam’s Courier and Freeman describing a confrontation that occurred in Lyon Mountain (in Clinton County). A husband and wife, it was reported, were both in jail “as the result of a family squabble.” Most dictionaries define squabble as some sort of petty quarrel, and petty comes in as “of little or no consequence.”

And why were they in jail? Because he “was struck in the back with a knife and his wife was hit over the head with the blunt end of an axe.” A squabble? Perhaps the writer was subtly suggesting just how tough Adirondackers were. Would it have taken a death for him to describe it as an actual fight?

Although that’s a tough one to beat in the category of understatement, a writer for the Ticonderoga Sentinel took a good run at it back in 1916. A house fire in Chilson had caused the death of a local man, who reportedly was sleeping upstairs and was trapped there by the flames. In the days to follow, newspaper reports mentioned “things that have given rise to a suspicion [my italics] that Smith may have been a victim of foul play.” May have been?

Among those “things” were two somewhat important facts: the body was found “beneath the kitchen stove in the debris that filled the cellar.” There’s no doubt about it: under the stove after being asleep upstairs makes little sense, considering the sequence of floors collapsing.

Oh yes … one more thing—investigators were unable to locate the victim’s head! Becoming newly aware of that circumstance, the writer eschewed big, bold headlines, instead noting that the severed and still-missing head had merely given rise to suspicions of foul play. Gosh … you think?

I once lived on a farm that used a pair of draft horses for working the fields. Those animals were downright enormous, one of which, the farmer claimed, weighed more than a ton. Big as they were, both were dwarfed by a Percheron that in 1923 was purchased by 18 farmers in the Ausable Valley. Said the Plattsburg Sentinel: “This beautiful black stallion is 8 years old and weights 18,000 pounds …”

Now that’s a horse … or maybe ten. It reminds me of Crocodile Dundee, who, when faced by switchblade-wielding hoodlums, said, “That’s not a knife,” and drawing his much larger weapon, added, “that’s a knife.”

While perusing the pages of the Ogdensburg Journal, I encountered this entry from 1924: “… a Berlin editor selected three distinctive sections of the city and counted the boobs that passed in 500 women.” Editing sounded like a great gig, but couldn’t he have just counted the women and multiplied by two?

BoobsintheWoodsActually, it appears there was no error in the story, which was about the newly popular hairstyle, the bob. In Germany, it was called the “bubi,” which yes, was pronounced “boobee.” That explained the unusual sentence, but it’s still funny … funnier even than the title of a new novel in 1929, which, as noted in the Commercial Advertiser of Canton, was available at the local library: Boobs in the Woods. A different connotation has since taken over that word, but back then, it simply meant fools. Here’s betting that’s not the image in your brain right now. Read the title again. Did you smile?

This last one is not for the kiddies, but the joke is all in one’s mind. It appeared in a 1973 issue of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, in an article by a very well-known, top-notch author. While discussing the history of Adirondack guideboats and the rising cost of such craft, he wrote: “By the 1900s, even a second hand job brought $100.” An editor would hope to pick up on something like that. Even had the hyphen appeared, the writer would have been urged to rephrase the passage.

I’m glad he didn’t. The article was outstanding, and the laugh was merely a bonus.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

3 Responses

  1. Dan Crane says:

    One newspaper headline I read years ago that never fails to make me giggle is: “Hooker Blamed for Love Canal Mess.”

    Obviously, they meant Hooker Chemical, the company responsible for dumping toxic waste in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, NY, but that is not what it sounds like. I can’t imagine that whomever was responsible for the headline did it unintentionally, but you never know.

    See, I’m giggling already!

  2. Gordie Little says:

    Best column yet, Larry and I know the Boobie Sisters would love it, too.

  3. Andrea says:

    Fun article! This is one of the many reasons I love delving into old newspapers. It seems as though they either understated or sensationalized, with no in-between and with oftentimes hilarious results. I also find the evolution of word meanings over time fascinating.

    Thank you (and Dan) for the chuckles and giggles!

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