When we use phrases like “pleased as punch” in our daily conversations, it’s not uncommon for their origins to be shrouded in mystery. Have you ever wondered where this curious expression comes from? In this article, we’ll dive into the fascinating history behind “pleased as punch,” revealing its unexpected roots in the world of puppetry, comedy, and British culture.
A Puppetry Legacy
To understand the true meaning of “pleased as punch,” we must journey back in time to 16th-century Italy, where the seeds of this peculiar phrase were sown. It all begins with the origins of Punch and Judy, a renowned puppet show that has left an indelible mark on cultural history.
The roots of Punch and Judy can be traced back to the rich tradition of commedia dell’arte, a form of Italian theater characterized by masked performances and stock characters. While the show has evolved over the centuries, its core elements have remained remarkably consistent.
Fast forward to the 17th century, and Punch and Judy finds itself crossing the English Channel, making its debut on British soil. The first documented record of the English version of the show comes from Samuel Pepys, a diarist who attended a performance in Covent Garden, London, on May 9, 1662. Pepys, in his own words, described the experience as “exceedingly pretty” and witnessed the spectacle alongside a gathering of London’s gallants.
Rise to Victorian Prominence
A Victorian Sensation
As the years passed, the popularity of Punch and Judy continued to soar. By the time the Victorian era arrived, the show was a cherished part of British culture, with performances taking place in major cities throughout the country. While Punch and Judy may not be as widely known in the United States, it remains an iconic and beloved tradition in the United Kingdom and Europe.
The Enigmatic Plot of Punch and Judy
A Dynamic Puppetry Show
For those unacquainted with the show, Punch and Judy can be somewhat enigmatic in its plot. It can best be described as a “variety” puppet show that serves as a reflection of contemporary events and issues. One of its defining characteristics is its adaptability and relevance to the times. No two performances are the same, as they often incorporate satirical commentary on current political leaders and events.
For example, historical figures like Hitler and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have made appearances on the show, reflecting its penchant for political satire.
The Peculiar Persona of Punch
At the heart of Punch and Judy is the irreverent and often outrageous character of Punch himself. Typically portrayed as a “hook-nosed, hump-backed buffoon,” Punch is far from politically correct. He’s depicted as a violent spouse, a serial killer, and a cunning trickster.
But what does it mean for Punch to be “pleased”? His delight is an unusual one—he revels in the chaos and destruction he causes, taking satisfaction in his mischievous deeds.
The Birth of “Pleased as Punch”
The Emergence of a Catchphrase
The specific phrase “pleased as Punch” didn’t appear in recorded history until 1797. It can be found in William Gifford’s satires, “The Baviad” and “Maeviad,” where it is used in a context like this: “Howdy! My fingers are itching to pluck your nose, how I want! To the extent that I am satisfied, I would keep it in my gripe.”
Interestingly, “proud as punch” was once used as frequently as “pleased.” Charles Dickens, the celebrated author, employed both phrases in his works. In “David Copperfield” (1850), Dickens wrote, “That I once had the privilege of being associated with your family is something that fills me with the same level of pride as Punch.” In “Hard Times” (1854), he remarked, “When Sissy got into the school here… her father was as pleased as Punch.”
Modern Usage and Amusing Origins
In contemporary language, “pleased as punch” has become more prevalent, while “proud as punch” has receded into relative obscurity. It’s a humorous thought that we owe the popularity of this phrase to a puppet character known for beating his wife and committing serial murders. However, when you delve into the fascinating history behind it, the expression takes on a whole new layer of meaning beyond what’s found in your punch bowl.