Dept. of Word Lists

The Tawdry Hucksters of Tripe

Bob Greenman, an award-winning writer, educator, and speaker, has written two outstanding guides to vocabulary enrichment: Words That Make a Difference and More Words That Make a Difference, with illustrative passages from the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly, respectively. We asked Bob to pick some choice words from the second volume (co-authored with his wife, Carol), and he came up with a trio of words exposing the seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood.

Welcome to Hollywood, a world of tawdry egos, hucksters and tripe. At least that's the way Raymond Chandler saw Tinseltown in two articles he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 1945 and 1948. Tawdry, huckster and tripe are the words we'll be talking about here, words featured in three passages in More Words That Make a Difference.

tawdry TAW dree
cheap and showy; gaudy; sleazy

I hold no brief for Hollywood. I have worked there a little over two years, which is far from enough to make me an authority, but more than enough to make me feel pretty thoroughly bored. That should not be so. The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion.
—Raymond Chandler, November 1945. From the article "Writers in Hollywood."           

Following the success of his great detective novels, "The Big Sleep" (1939) and "Farewell My Lovely" (1940), Raymond Chandler went to Hollywood to write scripts. He had big successes with "Double Indemnity" (1943), and "The Blue Dahlia" (1946), both of which were nominated for screenwriting Oscars, but left in the late forties, disgusted with a community of "tired hacks" who "never had an idea in their lives." He didn't blame the writers, though, he wrote in "Writers in Hollywood." Some of them could produce great art were their talent allowed to flower." It was the producers, who supervised them, Chandler wrote; men whose "tawdry egos" competed for box office receipts and whose "conception of what makes a good picture is still as juvenile as its treatment of writing talent is insulting and degrading," men with "the morals of a goat," and "the artistic integrity of a slot machine." (Remember Holden Caulfield's older brother, D.B., a writer who Holden said went to Hollywood and prostituted himself?)

Tawdry is a shortening of "St. Audrey," the name of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess who later ruled a monastery and was the patron saint of the English town of Ely. Tawdry was formed by the elimination of an initial unstressed syllable in St. Audrey, in the same way that cute came from acute, squire from esquire, and sample from example.The linguistic term for the way those words arose is aphesis, Greek for "sending away."

At Ely's annual fair, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, vendors sold fancy scarves and necklaces called St. Audrey's laces. Over the years these articles gradually decreased in quality, eventually becoming schlocky (a word probably unknown to the Ely townspeople of the time), and were sold by hucksters who called out "S'taudrey laces!" Eventually, they were selling "tawdry lace," and by the end of the 17th century, tawdry had come to mean anything cheap and gaudy: Coney Island's honky-tonk garishness; a Congressman's affair with his intern; a celebrity murder in the Hollywood hills; a city's red-light district; a gossip columnist's sordid celebrity news; a run-down street filled with bars and tattoo parlors; the Jerry Springer show. Chandler's "tawdry egos" is an especially creative use of the word.

The connection between fancy neckwear and St. Audrey seems to have arisen not only because of her monastery's location by the town, but because, despite her lifelong piety, she believed that the throat cancer she died of was retribution for her vain wearing of necklaces in her youth.  

The creation of tawdry from St. Audrey reminds me of how my friend Jack Hines said he and his Catholic school classmates vied for the attention of the nuns who taught them. Waving their hands excitedly at a sister to be called on because they knew an answer, they'd call out, in a vocalized whisper, "Stuh,  Stuh." A classroom-created aphesis.

huckster HUHK ster
a haggling merchant; to promote or advertise in an overaggressive or showy manner

If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry's frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck?
—Raymond Chandler, March 1948.  From the article "Oscar Night in Hollywood."

Huckster's original sense, as the Oxford English Dictionary gives it with its first citation of the word from the year 1300, is "a retailer of small goods, in a petty shop or booth, or at a stall; a pedlar, a hawker," a sense it retained into at least the 1920's. Within 300 years, though, it had also taken on its modern pejorative sense, an aggressive or  unscrupulous promoter.

While Chandler's use of  the verb huckster refers to Hollywood advertising hype, in the 1947 film, The Hucksters, Clark Gable's huckster is at the far end of pejorative, a corrupt radio advertising executive who will do anything to get an account. (By film's end, Gable's character reforms his ways, but only because Gable, who would not take the part otherwise, demanded a script change. In the 1946 book of the same title his character remains a heel.)

Chandler's hucksters were the Hollywood producers for whom box office trumped quality, misusing their scriptwriters to make movies that would attract mass audiences, counting on huge numbers to influence voting at Oscar time, and flooding Hollywood's trade newspapers with ads for movies that are "ballyhooed, pushed, yelled, screamed, and in every way propagandized into the consciousness of the voters so incessantly, in the weeks before the final balloting, that everything except the golden aura of the box office is forgotten."

The objectives haven't changed much over the decades, says Michael Klastorin, a Hollywood publicist, a former high school journalism student of mine, and definitely not a huckster. "The push for Oscar nominees begins months and months in advance," he says. "The two entertainment trade papers, Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter are filled with ads run by the studios for dozens and dozens of films, in every major category." But, he says, the studios have adapted "to the times and the technologies," sending "every member of the Academy DVD's of their nominated films to view at home, knowing that they may not want, or have time, to go to a theater to see the films." Once the nominations are announced, Klastorin says, "the studios go into overdrive, running even more ads to attempt to curry favor with the voters."

Although huckster is nearly always a pejorative appelation today, it is still used to describe honest but heavyhanded advertising. You may not know Arthur Schiff by name (he died in 2006 at the age of 66), but you know the products his ad copy boosted. Ever see the Ginsu knife infomercial? (At maybe 2 a.m.?) Schiff wrote it, in 1978, first changing the knife's name from Quikcut to the exotic-sounding Ginsu, which sounds Japanese but means nothing. Actors dramatized the Ginsu's ability to slice everything from a tomato to a tin can, and millions of viewers bought it. Schiff wrote more than 1,800 infomercials for everything from sunglasses to car mops and created the catchphrases, "But wait, that's not all," "Now, how much would you pay," and "Act now, and you'll also receive?." He was a huckster by trade, but an honest one, whose commercials came on strong and often didn't let up for a half hour, or until you were asleep. Never deceptive, they simply played on viewers' susceptibility to buying products they never thought they needed. The Miracle Duster, anyone?

tripe    trighp 
something of no value; nonsense; rubbish: tripe is the name given to the lining of the stomach of cattle and other ruminants when used as food

Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn't they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the putty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women's clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.
—Raymond Chandler, March 1948. From the article "Oscar Night in Hollywood."

Many people won't touch tripe (one of them would be me), the lining of the first and second stomachs of cattle, sheep and other ruminants when used as food, yet it's served in restaurants and homes worldwide, usually fried or in a soup or stew. Tripe is a more appetizing name for a food than stomach, wouldn't you say? The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word as far back as the thirteenth century, which may indicate that even back then, when we imagine people would have been less squeamish about eating innards, mom didn't say "Now, dear, finish your stomach first, then you'll have your carrot cake."

(Another euphemized organ is sweetbreads, the thymus gland and pancreas of a calf. If you've never tasted them, sauteed or friend, you may have said "Yuck" a moment ago. But I can vouch for the delectability of sweetbreads, which are, indeed, sweet and bready. But tripe, "Yuck." )

The OED tells us that tripe's negative sense entered the language at the end of the fourteenth century, first applied to a despicable person, and by the seventeenth century was being applied disparagingly to "artistic work, opinions, conversation, or the like: worthless stuff, rubbish." That's what Chandler meant in this passage from the Atlantic article, "Oscar Night in Hollywood," based on his screenwriting experiences in Hollywood. Most movies were tripe, he said, made by philistine producers, from bad plays and bad novels.

Tripe, Chandler wrote, resulted when a movie was made "to please too many people and offend too few." Unlike the almost unrestricted freedom given novels and plays, he said, Hollywood has "such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom." The motion picture, Chandler wrote, is not only art, "but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel."

"To greatly excel"? Did you see that split infinitive?! An Atlantic proofreader did, and Chandler was questioned about his breach of grammatical correctness. He responded to the Atlantic's editor, Edward Weeks, on January 18, 1947 with the request that Weeks "convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois...and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so that it will stay split." The "error" stayed, as it should have, for Chandler knew that, despite centuries of editors, grammarians and teachers railing against the split infinitive,  there really is nothing ungrammatical about it.

New York Times editors also know there's nothing wrong with a split infinitive, but they ask their writers to avoid them because, as one editor said, "we get letters from teachers."

Passages cited in this article are reprinted from More Words That Make a Difference, © Robert Greenman and Carol Greenman, published by Levenger Press.

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Wednesday March 18th 2009, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Wow, tripe seems to have such a bad rap! I find it to be quite delicious when it's been braised. It's also commonly found in Vietnamese noodle soup, which is also quite scrumptious.

It's too bad that so many tasty parts fall under the umbrella of offal, which according to the VT pronunciation, is unfortunately pronounced just like the word awful. However, if anybody is interested in expanding their palate and offal knowledge, check out this informative site:
Wednesday March 18th 2009, 1:42 PM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
I like tripe when it is well-prepared. People are just put off by the thought of it. Like head-cheese.

I thought Chandler's response re the split-infinitive to be so good I added it to my quotes page.
Tuesday March 24th 2009, 3:01 AM
Comment by: B. E. C. (DeRidder, LA)
Tripe is better eaten than to decorate the inside of a car. Back in the 60's in L.A.,CA a place that made handmade tortillas also made "Menudo". You brought a container in to the store and they filled it with menudo and charged you accordingly. On the way home one sunday morning I had to hit the brakes HARD, the lid flew off the large container of mendudo sitting on the floor of the passenger side of the car and the red chili based liquid flew all over, what a mess!

Too often tripe in menudo is not cooked properly and bounces back in your mouth when you bite on it much like a rubber eraser might I would think; at any rate it is quite unsettling.

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