Friday, March 10, 2006

thinking about pooh

I don't have particular faith in the people of the future to do anything sensible, but if this is ever going to happen, it's not going to happen in the past, is it: when is someone (other than me) going to stand up and say, what is (or in the future, 'what was') it with this Winnie-the-Pooh thing?

I grew up accepting the idea of Winnie-the-Pooh. Of course I wondered a little about the Pooh element but I managed to encompass the double standard of it without too much bother. And looking back it makes perfect sense to me that A A Milne could have put forward his MS of a bear called Pooh without anyone making too much fuss, even with the notion that it comes from a child's mind. For all I know when the WTP books were written, or in the Milne household/cohort there was no such word as 'poo' meaning faeces though there must have been that cry of 'pooo!' when something smelt awful. Surely?

But what happened in the 1920s is not even really the point. The point is that these days when silly columnists talk about dog or baby shit (you know, 'cute' shit) they often call, and spell, it pooh. So the origin is one thing, but these days many amongst us assume that Winnie-the-Pooh is actually a toy bear with a surname, or descriptor or whatever, that tells us he is a (as I would spell it, if I was going to spell it, which I ordinarily wouldn't) 'poo'. Walt Disney bought the rights many years ago and created a sanitised version of the characters, which are certainly very delightful in their original incarnation as illustrated by Ernest Shephard. But Disney did not sanitise the 'poo' bit, and even though Americans are more prone to using that cutism 'poop', I doubt that many fail to see the connection. They buy children's artefacts covered in for instance the words 'Pooh and friends'.

We all know the name of Winnie-the-Pooh, so it seems fairly natural to us even while we accept that it's unusual to call a child's toy/friend 'the Pooh'. What if he had been called Winnie the Shit, or Winnie the Crap, or Winnie the Manure? I suppose we would have accepted that, too, if it had always been the case.

I'm not trying to be funny, so don't worry if you didn't laugh. I don't even think it is funny. I suppose it just belongs in that strange doublethink category full of things that life's too short to worry about.


Mike said...

To make it even more bewildering, in the opening chapter, the narrative/paternal voice actually questions Christopher Robin about the bear's name, but about the "pooh" - he's puzzled as to why a male bear is called Winnie. (I explained to my girls that Winnie was a girls' name but the only evidence I have for that is my supposition from reading the same passage as an older child myself.)

In another early chapter there's a postulated explanation that Pooh got his name when his arms were stuck above his head for a week and he had to blow flies off his nose.

I think it's a perfectly plausible name for a child to give a toy, which is why it works in the context of the original story. The child would have to be on the cusp of toilet humour, that is, old enough to know that pooh is important but not yet old enough to get a kick out of deliberate transgression. (When kids get to that age is when they seem to realise that the name is weird, but they take it in their stride.) I think Freud would have had interesting and probably disturbing things to say about all this.

Another explanation is that people will forgive a lot if you can write prose like that. Milne is the Wodehouse of children's literature.

I once saw some electronic flapdoodle in a toy store called "My Interactive Pooh" and nearly fell over laughing. The Americans really don't seem to get it.

David said...

Thanks you Mike. It hadn't occurred to me to go back to the original source, and that extra stuff is funny unusual. I agree, it is a plausible name for a child to give a toy, but as to whether it was descriptive in the way we might use it today or whether it was just a nonsense word is perhaps the other issue. I am assuming that everyone, from the moment the book was proposed or came out, has been avoiding the nasty truth.

Richard Forster said...

TRANSITIVE VERB: Inflected forms: pooh-·poohed, pooh-·pooh·ing, pooh-·poohs
Informal To express contempt for or impatience about; make light of: “British actors have long pooh-poohed the Method” (Stephen Schiff).
ETYMOLOGY: Reduplication of pooh.

see also, pooh-bah