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shameless pleading

Clutch one’s pearls

Oh, my stars and garters! Film at 11.

Dear Word Detective:  The phrase “clutching her pearls” seems to describe a situation in which the clutcher, invariably female, is shocked or horrified by some event she perceives as vulgar or in bad taste. The phrase was recently applied to a New York Times editorial, which was described as “The Gray Lady clutched her pearls.” I’m guessing that the phrase originated with Margaret Dumont, the dowager foil in so many Marx Brothers movies. Is this correct? — Allan Pratt.

Wow. I knew Margaret Dumont appeared in several Marx Brothers movies, always playing essentially the same character, a wealthy society dowager whose good-natured dignity and sense of propriety served as a backstop for most of Groucho’s jokes. But I hadn’t known until I read her Wikipedia entry that Dumont was actually in seven (!) Marx Brothers movies; no wonder Groucho later described her as “practically the fifth Marx Brother.” (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo were the performing brothers; Gummo, the real fifth brother, never appeared in the movies.)

Whether Dumont was playing Mrs. Rittenhouse in Animal Crackers (1930), Mrs. Teasdale in Duck Soup (1933) or Mrs. Upjohn in A Day at the Races (1937), sooner or later Groucho would do or say something appalling, and Dumont would recoil, teeter or even faint dead away in shock. I don’t happen to have easy access to any Marx Brothers movies at the moment, but my recollection is that Dumont would, in such a moment, raise her hand to her upper chest in a gesture of shock, a classic bit of “stage business” to indicate distress. Whether she actually “clutched” her pearl necklace or not, the use of “clutching one’s pearls” to mean “reacting in shock to a violation of propriety” is clearly a reference to this well-worn device, probably as old as drama itself. More recently, Mrs. Howell of Gilligan’s Island made this gesture in nearly every episode.

While the dramatic device of a character signaling outraged sensibilities by “clutching her pearls” is of long standing, the phrase itself became popular as a mocking metaphor, meaning “being ostentatiously shocked by something not all that shocking,” especially if the “shock” was feigned or reflected outdated social prejudices. According to a Slate.com article from 2012, the metaphor’s “breakout moment” came in a 1990 episode of Keenen and Damon Wayans’ “In Living Color” Fox Network comedy show, in a skit called “Men on Film” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWdL9mrYNmQ). As summarized by Slate’s Torie Bosch, “After Blaine Edwards (played by Damon Wayans) waxes about how ‘daring’ producers were to cast a male actor as the ‘female’ lead in Dangerous Liaisons, his sidekick Antoine Merriweather tells him that Glenn Close is actually a woman, prompting Blaine to gasp, ‘Clutch the pearls!’”

The rise of the internet from the mid-1990s on, and particularly the handy ability it brought to snipe at political or cultural foes in real time, seems to have given “clutch the pearls” and “pearl-clutching” a steady gig in the less formal precincts of our political discourse. Any impassioned protest or objection by one side is sure to elicit snide references to “pearl clutching” from the other. In the case of the New York Times, the paper’s nickname of “the Gray Lady” (dating to a 1951 Life magazine article on the paper’s 100th anniversary) has probably earned it a bit more than its share of “pearl-clutching” jibes.

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