A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (59)?…


As pleased as punch

This is another phrase utilising the as x as y formula which indicates that the speaker is extremely pleased.

The punch referred to in the phrase is none other than Mr Punch who has thrilled impressionable children for many a year at the seaside. The Punch and Judy show featuring the dastardly Mr Punch and his long-suffering wife, Mrs Judy, was a standard feature of seaside entertainment during the late 19th century and early to mid 20th century. Like many an ostensibly innocent pastime it has rather fallen out of favour these days mainly because the character of Punch, a wife-beater and serial killer, is not thought to meet the exacting standards of the politically correct brigade. On a literal level that may be true but for the little darlings the scenarios and the levels of gratuitous violence portrayed are probably no worse than they would see on their TV sets. “That’s the way to do it”, the self-satisfied cry of Mr Punch as he despatches another victim is part of our heritage and a small but irreplaceable part of our childhood will be lost if Mr Punch is consigned to the scrap heap.

The character of Mr Punch in a dramatic context has been around since the 1660s at least here in Britain. No less a personage than Samuel Pepys, who knew a thing or two about ill-treating his wife, records in 1666 that he went with the missus (his, actually) to Moorfields by coach to see ‘Polichinello’, which pleases me mightily”.  And, thereby, the origin of Mr Punch is revealed.

Commedia dell’arte was a form of theatre that owed its genesis to 16th century Renaissance Italy. It featured players who wore masks and it typically involved improvisation around a sketch or scene – indeed, its proper title was commedia dell’arte all’improvviso. And arte itself was an abbreviation for artigiani, artisans, differentiating this form of theatre from eruditi where the players followed a set script. One of the principal characters was Pulcinella or Punch, as he became in English, who was always dressed in white with a black mask, supposedly representing life and death, and who was portrayed as being mean, vicious and crafty. It was a character that took off and in Germany he was known as Kasper, in Holland Jan Klaasen, in Denmark Mester Jekel and in France Polichinelle, a close variant of the name Pepys uses.

The phrase itself does not makes its first recorded entry in print until 1797 in William Gifford’s satires, The Baviad and Maeviad, “As pleased as Punch, I’d hold it in my gripe”.  In the mid-19th century there was a variant of the phrase, as proud as punch, which Dickens used in David Copperfield (1850), “I am as proud as Punch to think that… ” while four years later, in Hard Times, he reverts to the familiar format, “her father was as pleased as Punch”.

So now we know!


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