Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Pleased As Punch

Posted by Elyse Bruce on January 7, 2016

When you’re pleased as punch, you’re more than just happy, you’re very satisfied with the end results of a situation or accomplishment.  And who wouldn’t be?  After all, isn’t punch (as in the beverage served in a large bowl at gatherings) pleasing?  But wait a minute!  Is the punch of the expression pleased as punch the same punch as the punch found in a punch bowl?

Senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey (27 May 1911 – 13 January 1978) — and later on Vice-President of the United States of America — was particularly fond of saying he was pleased a punch.  In fact, he was so fond of the idiom that it was called his catch phrase.

However, back when Hubert Humphrey was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, newspapers began to use his catch phrase to paint him in a different way.  The Sarasota Herald-Tribune of March 12, 1972 published an article about his campaign, delighting readers with their description of Hubert Humphrey being a “tireless hand shaker, a skilled busser of babies, a man trying very hard to show that he’s still a viable leader.”  The opening paragraph said it all.

Sen. Hubert Horatio Humphrey of Minnesota is not saying he’s “pleased as punch” much anymore, but he is definitely in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Of course, this was followed up with pointing out that he had tried for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960 and lost because he wasn’t much competition for the charming and charismatic John F. Kennedy.   The next comment was that he had won the nomination in 1968 and lost the election.  Oh my!  When his political life is framed in this way, there’s definitely a lot less to be pleased as punch over!

SIDE NOTE 1:  In the United Kingdom, insults and accusations are exchanged between rival members of Parliament, in what is referred to as “Punch and Judy politics.” Prime Minister David Cameron used the phrase in a speech he gave in 2005.

In the July 4, 1938 edition of Life magazine, the column “Life On The Newsfronts Of The World” led with a story about U.S. President Roosevelt.  Coming out of the Depression Era, things were looking up for America.  The New York Stock Exchange had recently posted six successive million-plus-shares days that say stock prices rise by fourteen percent.  The article began thusly:

Pleased as punch, President Roosevelt smiled contentedly into a battery of news cameras on the evening of June 24 as, according to custom, he posed for the press immediately before delivering his thirteenth fireside chat.

Roosevelt’s fireside chats — thirty in all — were first radio and then television addresses where the president spoke directly to Americans the way one imagined the president spoke with close friends.  The first one, on March 12, 1933 addressed the banking crisis after which public confidence was temporarily restored in some small measure.

SIDE NOTE 2:  Harry Butcher, a reporter for CBS News, coined the term “fireside chat” in time for Roosevelt’s address of May 7, 1933, and the term stuck, in large part because it was in keeping with the informality of Roosevelt’s addresses to the American public.

In Volume 121 of Harper’s Monthly Magazine published on June 1910 carried the story, “The Wild Olive” trumpeted as a novel by the author of “The Inner Shrine.”  Chapter XX titled, “Part IV: Conquest” opened with Evie and Miriam, and the situation of who Evie may or may not be engaged to — Herbert Strange or Norrie Ford.  Her uncle was of the opinion she was engaged to one and not the other, but Evie wasn’t so easily convinced.

“Well, I mean to be true to him — a while longer,” she said, at last, as if coming to a conclusion.  “I’m not going to let Uncle Jarrott think I’m just a puppet to be jerked on a string.  The idea!  When he was as pleased as Punch about it himself.  And Aunt Helen said she’d give me my trousseau.  I suppose I sha’n’t get that now.  But there’s the money you offered me for the pearl necklet.  Only I’d much rather have the pearl — Well, I’ll be true to him, do you see?  We’re leaving for Newport the day after to-morrow.  They say there hasn’t been such a brilliant summer for a long time as they expect this year.  Thank goodness, there’s something to take my mind off all this care and worry and responsibility, otherwise I should pass away.  But I shall show Uncle Jarrott that he can’t do just as he likes with me, anyhow.”

In Volume 2 of the book, “My Friend Jim” written by English novelist and short story author, William Edward Norris  (18 November 1847 – 1925) and published in 1886, the phrase comes up in a conversation between two friends discussing affairs of the heart as it has to do with a common friend of theirs, Beauchamp, and Lady Mildred (whose father is Lord Staines).  Chapter XVI begins by telling readers that murder will out, and that scandal (no matter how small) in time become public property despite all efforts to keep things quiet.  As the friends gossip about the situation at hand, the duplicity of relationships comes to light.

“Not yet; but he may do it any day.  In fact, it is quite certain that he has come here in order to do it.  He wrote to Lady Mildred, offering himself for a week, which he would hardly have done unless he had meant business.  From what he has let fall, I suspect that he has had a quarrel with Lady Bracknell, and has decided to cut himself off from her.  Old Staines is as pleased as Punch; he looks upon the thing as settled.  Harry, what the deuce am I to do?”

During this time period, pleased as Punch and proud as Punch were used interchangeably with the same meaning.  The Volume 38 of the “London Charivari” published on May 5, 1860, the poem, “The Little Man and the Little Plan, or, The New Reform Coach” is found.  The poem has no attribution, and so the poet’s name is unknown to readers.  What is known is that there was no love lost between the author and the Whigs in British parliament.

Proud as Punch, craned to catch the public praise, praise, praise,
But, to his great surprise, instead of cheers and cries,
Of “Bravo, Johnny Russell!” from the crowd, crowd, crowd,
All was scorn and sneer and scoff — “Throw him over!” “Pull him off!”

SIDE NOTE 3:  The “London Charivari” was also known by it’s other name — Punch magazine.

Charles Dickens himself used the expression in his 1854 novel, “Hard Times – For These Times” published in 1854.  It was the tenth novel by Charles Dickens, and the shortest of all the novels he wrote.  What’s more not one scene was set in London, having been set in the fictional town of Coketown (a generic milltown that was similar in some ways to Manchester as well as to Preston).  The novel was serialized in his weekly publication, “Household Words” between April 1854 and August 1854.

In Chapter VI, the action opens at Pegasus’s Arms, a public house in town. Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby arrive and, greeted by the young girl, Sissy, they are shown to a room where Sissy goes from room to room afterwards in search of her father, Signor Jupes.  It’s not long before they are joined by Mr. Childers and Master Kidderminster.

“When Sissy got into the school here,” he pursued, “her father was as pleased as Punch.  I couldn’t altogether make out why, myself, as we were not stationary here, being but comers and goers anywhere.  I suppose, however, he had this move in his mind — he was always half-cracked — and then considered her provided for.”

Miss Godfrey (half-sister of the husband of Anna May Chichester aka Lady Donegall who also corresponded with Thomas Moore) wrote a letter to Thomas Moore dated February 22, 1813 to Thomas Moore in which she described Bessy’s gown.  Interestingly enough, not only does she use the idiom pleased as Punch, she refers to the fact that poets use the expression as well!

We had a grand ball here the other night, and you cannot imagine the sensation that Bessy excited; her dress was very pretty, and ‘beautiful,’ ‘beautiful,’ was echoed on all sides.  I was (as the poet says) as pleased as Punch!

In Act I of “Secrets Worth Knowing: A Comedy In Five Acts” by English playwright, Thomas Morton (1764 – 28 March 1838), published in 1802, and performed at the Theatre-Royal in Covent Garden, England the idiom appears near the beginning of the play.  The conversation is taking place between the valet, the butler, the coachman, the cook, and the footmen as the audience learns that the master they knew has died, and they await the arrival of his heir.

COACHMAN
I pulls with you, Mr. Valet — young master must in the main be glad, for we all know that the old gemman, seeing that he run skittish, kept him upon low provender beyond sea.  So my verdict is, Mr. Butler, that we all smiles agreeably.

BUTLER
So say I.  Dam’me, I’ll look as pleased as Punch, ha! ha!

VALET
Softly.  And will you, Sir, who have but thirty ponds a-year, dare to be as pleased at seeing your master, as I, who have fifty?  No, no — subordination is every thing.

The idiom pleased as Punch is found in William Gifford’s, “The Baviad, and Maeviad,” published in 1797.

Oh! how my fingers itch to pull thy nose! As pleased as Punch, I’d hold it in my gripe.

While the earliest published version of pleased as punch that Idiomation found was from 1797, the fact of the matter is that the spirit of the idiom dates back to the 1660s, and can be traced directly back to the Punch and Judy shows.  This is because many of the early references — whether it’s proud as Punch or pleased as Punch — capitalize the word Punch.  This means that the word Punch isn’t actually a word, but rather a proper name.

The Punch and Judy puppet shows began popping up across Britain just as the restoration of the English monarchy began in 1660.  Under the reign of Charles II (14 May 1660 – 1685) and that of his brother, James II (1685 – 1688), the English, Scottish, and Irish monarchies were restored under one rule.  Charles II was a supporter of the Punch and Judy shows, that in October of 1662, Charles II ordered a royal command performance at Whitehall in the Queen’s Guard Chamber.

One might say that Charles II was pleased as Punch with the performance as the creator of the Punch and Judy show, Signor Bologna alias Pollicinella, was rewarded by Charles II with a gold chain and medal, along with a gift worth £25 at the time (according to online calculators, they put the equivalent of that amount to £3,500 in 2015 currency).  With that level of compensation from a King of England, it would be a good guess that Signor Bologna was also pleased as Punch.

Punch the puppet delighted in hurting others and getting away with hurting others.  Every time he physically assaulted another character and got away with it, it came with Punch‘s catchphrase, “That’s the way to do it!” which was always done in a sing-song voice.   In other words, Punch was proud to have done what he did, and he was pleased with the outcome of his assaults.

SIDE NOTE 4:  Two other phrases that came from the Punch and Judy shows are punch line and slapstick.

SIDE NOTE 5:  May 9 is International Punch Day.

So while Idiomation was only able to trace the first published version of pleased as Punch to 1797, it’s a safe bet that the term was in use long before 1797.  Idiomation’s guess is that shortly after the Punch and Judy shows received great praise from Charles II, the idiom pleased as Punch came into being in conversational English, and then in written English.

2 Responses to “Pleased As Punch”

  1. Erik said

    What an interesting tie in for the phrase. Thank you for tracking it down and sharing! Also interesting that Judy didn’t get her own phrase out of the deal.

  2. […] am pleased as punch with the new design, to quote a recent blog post. I like the comb size, the overall length, and the […]

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