Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Origin myth

I've been asked what the story behind "pagooey" is. The short answer is that it's a family nonsense word, one of the phrases or malapropisms that gets handed down for generations, like a code you speak to one another. (Do other people do this? My family has dozens. Some are based in ritual; for example, if you're lost and pull into a stranger's driveway to turn around, at least one of us in the car will call out "Hi! We're here!" for the sake of the unknown residents. Others are simpler, like mispronouncing "debris" as "der-biss," stolen from somebody's sister's college roommate. Really I need a separate glossary site, just for these.)

Anyway. Pagooey. In my mother's elementary school class, as in everyone's elementary school class, was The Kid That Everyone Picked On. You know the kid: the clammy-palmed nosepicker; the girl with thin, stringy, dishwater-blond hair and mismatched socks; the kid who smelled like sour milk, or pee, or fifteen cats, or all the above; the boy with a crust of impetigo on his upper lip; the kid with a shitty lunch, a harboiled egg and an off-brand soda; the kid who accidentally wore Spiderman pajama bottoms to school; the kid picked last. In my class, he was a boy. Billy. I'm going to hell for the stuff I willingly, relievedly inflicted on Billy. In my mother's class, the kid was a girl.

I don't remember the girl's real name, now...something with a P. Peggy? Patricia? At any rate, her classmates had come up with "Pagooey" and the name stuck. It didn't mean anything, or rather it meant that kid, and the taint of ill-fittedness and scorn that clung to her. Pagooey signified a perpetually running nose and hand-me-downs, cooties, paste-eating, the wrong shoes. Pagooey was, as much as anything, the concept of That Kid. "Eeewww, Pagooey!" they'd shriek on the playground, running from her--Pagooey might be catching.

My mother had a birthday, turning probably nine or ten, and made a point of inviting all her female classmates but Pagooey. It was the fifties; you could still do this, exclude one or another little freak without fear of legal reprisals, or having to pick up their therapy tab. The girls had a great time, doing whatever you did at a birthday party in 1956...prancing around in crinolines, eating cake? Something. At the end of the affair, seeing her guests out, my mother found something wedged in the door: a missive from the dreaded Pagooey. A sheet of notebook paper, smudged and smeary, declaring "Happy Birthday," with pictures of horses clumsily cut from magazines and pasted on.

I'll bet the Germans have a word for it, what my mother felt for the first time, holding that note...what I feel, retelling the story she's remembered for nearly 50 years. A guttural word, full of umlauts and spittle, combining disgust for the other with disgust for yourself; multiple syllables that, strung together, mean something like "Awareness of life's pathos and of how you are a cruel little shit and yet not wholly repentant."

But, you know, maybe the English word is "pagooey." It kept coming up, when I was thinking about a name for this blog. It's a funny-sounding word. Maybe its definition has softened, over time, or grown more hopeful. All bloggers are probably a little bit pagooey, myself no exception. I am sneaking onto your porch; I am snootling against your window. I am leaving a note in your mailbox. I am putting the words on the Internet where anyone can find them. I'm telling the story of our inner Pagooeys. Your party looks like fun. Can I come in?

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