… is just what this blog needs on a Saturday morning.
Who or what is Ish Kabibble, you ask? Precisely what I was wondering myself after my wife, as is her custom, wandered through the house in a cold-induced haze, muttering the mysterious incantation. I’d heard it before and had the vague impression it was the name of some old timey vaudevillian. She just knew it because her mother used to randomly say “Ish Kabibble” as an exclamation.
So I went the global database of all knowledge–Google–and consulted the Oracle. It reveal to me that Ish Kabibble is both a what and a who.
This dismissive slang expression came into existence in the USA quite suddenly around 1913 with the ostensible meaning “I should worry!”, which means, of course, “Don’t worry!” or “Who cares?”. It had quite a vogue for a decade or two and was the name of a character played by Merwyn Bogue on a 1930s radio show called Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge (they don’t make titles like that any more).
Those of us who sift the detritus of language for fun and profit are intrigued by it. It looks and sounds Yiddish and the phrases nish gefidlt, nicht gefiedelt, and ich gebliebte have all been suggested as sources. The idea of a Jewish connection was reinforced in 1914 when Harry Hershfield began his cartoon strip Abie the Agent in Hearst newspapers, which featured the car salesman Abraham (“Abie”) Kabibble.
Many people at the time certainly thought it was Yiddish, and it’s notable that some Anglicised it to “I should bibble” or “we should bibble”. But it was equally firmly said by contemporaries that no Yiddish connection existed at all. And the slang term bibble is recorded a few years earlier, albeit with the meaning of nonsense talk. It’s a shortened form of bibble-babble, a reduplication of babble, which goes right back to the sixteenth century and turns up in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Endeavour thy selfe to sleepe, and leave thy vain bibble babble.”
Might ish-ge-bibble — as it was often written in the early days — have been a fake Yiddishism? It could have been based on German ich for I (often said by natives as ish), the ge prefix for the past participles of German verbs, plus bibble.
In his autobiography, Merwyn Bogue said that he took his stage name from a song he used to sing on the radio show, Isch Gabibble (I Should Worry), words by Sam M Lewis, music by George W Meyer, dated 1913. Bogue said he changed the spelling to make it easier to say. This song seems to have been the immediate source for the sudden arrival and popularity of the term. But did George W Meyer invent it or borrow it in his turn? It would be nice to know.
Ish Kabibble (January 19, 1908 – June 5, 1994) was an American comedian and cornet player. Born Merwyn Bogue in North East, Pennsylvania, he moved to Erie, Pennsylvania with his family a few months after his birth.
Bogue studied law at West Virginia University, but his comedy antics soon found an audience. He performed with Kay Kyser on the radio and television quiz show Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge in 1949 and 1950. Bogue also appeared in ten movies between 1939 and 1950. In Thousands Cheer (1943), he appeared with Kyser and sang “I Dug a Ditch”, and he also appeared as a vocalist in That’s Right—You’re Wrong (1939), You’ll Find Out (1940), and Playmates (1941).
The origin of Merwyn Bogue’s stage name, Ish Kabibble, can be traced back to the 1913 novelty song “Isch ga-bibble” and this 1915 cartoon postcard, which displays a spelling (Ish Ka Bibble) almost identical to that used by Bogue. Between the song and the card, in 1914, Harry Hershfield introduced his character Abie Kabibble in his comic strip Abie the Agent.
In his 1989 autobiography, Bogue explained his stage name, which he took from the lyrics of one of his comedic songs, “Isch ga-bibble.”
The song derived from a mock-Yiddish expression, “Ische ga bibble?”, which was purported to mean “I should worry?”, prompting a curious (and perhaps not coincidental) association with the “What, me worry?” motto of Mad Magazine‘s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman. While this derivation has been widely quoted on the Internet and elsewhere, the expression “ische ga bibble” is not Yiddish and in fact contains no Yiddish words at all. However, there is a Yiddish expression, “nisht gefidlt,” meaning “it doesn’t matter to me,” from which the term “ish kabibble” may derive.
Although Bogue’s stage persona was that of a dumb person, he was a notable cornet player and was also business manager for the Kay Kyser Orchestra from 1931 to 1951. With the decline of the big bands, Bogue found a new career in real estate. By 1973, he was living in Hawaii, causing double-takes from prospective clients who saw his trademark haircut and read his business card: “Ish Kabibble, Sales Manager”.
Bogue married Janet Meade in 1932, and the couple had three children: Merwyn (known as Peter), born 1937; Pamela, 1940; and Janet, 1941, according to the book Ish Kabibble: The Autobiography of Merwyn Bogue (1989), co-written by Bogue and his sister, Gladys Bogue Reilly.
Bogue died in 1994 in Joshua Tree, California of respiratory failure brought on by pulmonary disease and emphysema.
Kabibble’s distinctive black hair in a bowl cut, similar to that used by Three Stooges member Moe Howard, is said to have been an inspiration for the hairstyle worn by Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb and Dumber.
The name “Ish Kabbible” was used for a hoax student supposedly enrolled at Princeton University in the 1950s.
Around 1983, Ish Kabibble was the voice recording for the animated series Challenge of the GoBots. This predecessor to the more popular Transformers series also had humans allied with both sides of feuding mechanical extraterrestrials. One example was Soviet Russian scientist Dr. Anya Turgenova. Towards the end of the pilot episode, she muttered, “Ishkabibble!” in boredom after hearing her friends’ summoned to a U.S. federal government inquiry.
In 1985, the character’s name was used as a plot device on the animated series The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby-Doo when Scooby and the gang, along with an animated spoof of Vincent Price, go in search of the Amulet of Ish Kabibble.
In the TV show M*A*S*H, Alan Alda’s character Hawkeye Pierce several times refers to Ish Kabibble. Once Pierce asks whom he and Trapper John should drink to—”MacArthur or Ish Kabibble?” Another time he refers to Ish Kabibble and his All-Girl Orchestra and refers to him as part of a dream. In the TV show Green Acres, Sam Drucker sells “Ish Kabibble” kazoos. In the “Cousin Maude’s Visit” episode of All in the Family, Maude refers to how the name “Ish Kabibble” makes Archie Bunker laugh, in an automatic juvenile response.
In the animated sitcom Sit Down Shut Up, Ish Kabbible is referred to several times in one episode.
In the movie Photographing Fairies, Ish Kabbible is used a few times as a toast.
A children’s book, “Ishkabibble!” by Dorothy Crayder, with art by Susan Vaeth was published in 1975. The word in the book is a nonsense motivational term, and is revealed to translate as “who cares?” as in the alleged etymology from above.
The academic society known as The International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology goes by the acronym ISHPSSB, but the abbreviation is commonly pronounced ″ishkabibble″ at the suggestion of David Hull, as an homage to Bogue.
Kay Kyser and Ish Kabibble are caricatured as Kaynine Kyser and Ish Kyoodle in the Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon “Hollywood Canine Canteen.” Ish Kabibble recited a poem (“Roses are red / Violets are blue / If skunks had a college / They’d call it P.U.”).