Friday, July 20, 2012

They’re the Top!

At the driveway entrance to a recent fund-raiser for Mitt Romney, held at an imposing estate in East Hampton, New York, a woman in a blue chiffon dress poked her head out of her car and called to a guard: “Is there a V.I.P. entrance?  We are V.I.P.”

Somehow the term “V.I.P.”—an initialism meaning “Very Important Person(s)”—loses its luster when it is self-applied.  Never mind that every guest at a Romney fund-raiser thinks of himself or herself as a V.I.P. to the nth power.  Maybe that goes for everybody rich enough even to be in the Hamptons (where the wine prices at Sag Harbor’s American Hotel stagger up toward $4,500 a bottle). 

In any event, there was no special entrance for the lady in blue, and she had to wait her turn in a line of 30 or more cars filled with other V.I.P.s (or maybe just I.P.s) eager to drop some of their wealth on the Republican nominee (as if he needed it).

The origin of the term V.I.P. is in some doubt.  Most sources trace it to the 1930s or 1940s.  One says it comes from a transliteration of the initials of the Russian phrase Vesima Imenitaya Persona and attributes its use in English to the Royal Air Force. Alternatively, it is suggested that the term originated with a U. S. Army transport officer arranging a secret flight of dignitaries to the Middle East during World War II; rather than disclosing their names on the flight plan, he listed them all with the initials “V.I.P.”

There are plenty of other ways to refer to those we regard as special—or who may regard themselves that way.  Fat cat, dating from the 1920s, is among the least appealing.  Bennett Cerf in 1949 wrote of “Hollywood celebrities and literary fat cats” in a decidedly pejorative tone.

The upper crust is thought by some to have its roots in the Middle Ages from unburnt top parts of bread loaves that were given to the gentry, while the peasants ate the less desirable bottom half.  Most etymologists snort at that tale, even though a 1460 text by John Russell advises “Kutt ye vpper crust for youre souerayne.” Instead, say the experts, upper crust wasn’t used to refer to the aristocracy until the early 19th century and referred to the outer crust of the Earth’s surface or to a person’s head or hat.  Hmmm.

Bigwigs have been with us since the 18th century, referring to the powdered wigs worn by the gentry—and, supposedly, the bigger the wig, the more important the person. A 1792 letter from Robert Southey contends, “Though those big-wigs have really nothing in them, they look very formidable.”

The brass appeared in The Boston Herald in 1899, referring to the gold braid on uniforms of high-ranking military officers.  It is now used to refer to any important individuals, military or civilian.

Big shot has been used since the 1930s and probably derived from the expression to carry big guns, in use since the 1860s.  Big wheels started rolling in the 1950s with the rise of the automobile as a common means of transportation, and big cheese, borrowed from the French le grand fromage, can be traced to the 1920s.

A top banana, meaning the most important person in a group, originated in burlesque, but nobody knows exactly how.  Phil Silvers said that a comedian named Harry Steppe invented the term, based on a comedy routine full of double-talk in which three comedians tried to share two bananas.  Others say that a banana was given to the comedian who delivered the punch line of a particularly funny joke.  And still others maintain that it came from the position of the center dancer in a configuration of chorus girls that resembled a bunch of bananas.

High muck-a-muck (or sometimes muckety-muck), is easier to pin down. It’s from the Chinook Indian phrase hiu muckamuck, meaning “plenty of food,” and was used as early as 1856 to refer to a prosperous person.

Finally, head honcho comes from a G. I. slang term during the U. S. occupation of Japan following World War II.  It stems from the Japanese word hanchō, meaning “group (or squad) leader.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is noted for his output of V.I.P.—in this case, that means “Vilely Improper Poppycock.”

            Those V.I.P.,
            I guarantee,
            Are not for me,
            I’ll let ‘em be,
            And you would see
            Me dance with glee           
            If V.I.P.
            Would all agree
            To R.I.P.

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