Saturday, November 8, 2014

In memory of Tom, gimme a "dope slap" source

Tom and Ray Magliozzi's long run on public radio has included lots of language fun, as remembrances of Tom, who died last Monday, do not neglect to mention. I'm a longtime fan, and back in 2000, in a Boston Globe column and a follow-up note, I looked into one of their favorite terms -- "dope slap" -- but I didn't get very far.

My searches this week haven't improved my results, but I'll bet there are "Car Talk" fans out there with better skills (and access to better corpora) than mine. If you're among them, help us out here: Do Tom and Ray (and their parents) get the credit for dope slap?  (If you need inspiration, Ray's tribute show has plenty of laughs, plus the peerless Elizabeth Magliozzi.)

Meanwhile, here's what I dug up about dope slap 14 years ago, as printed in the Boston Sunday Globe.

Doping out the truth
June 4, 2000

A few months ago, in a story about Tony Blair's parental-leave dilemma, the Globe's Kevin Cullen wrote that the English prime minister "may feel the urge to give a dope slap to his Finnish counterpart, Paavo Lipponen," whose decision to take paternity leave had stepped up the pressure on Blair.

The article prompted a call from a friend asking, "What's a dope slap?" This was a mild shock: In the hometown of WBUR, the public radio station where "Car Talk" first revved its engines 23 years ago, it takes some doing to avoid hearing "dope slap." The car guys, Tom and Ray Magliozzi, have managed to spread the word not only throughout, but beyond, the English-speaking world. 

 The dope slap, officially -- you can click on [, the current address] for further discussion -- is a sudden but not very painful smack to the back of the head,* a humane form of the two-by-four blow that gets the proverbial mule's attention. As a slang expression, though, dope slap's origins are murky. Ray Magliozzi says that his mother used both the term and the dope slap liberally (and "at lightning speed") when he and his brother were young and stupid.

"I think it may be an Italian-American thing," adds Magliozzi, a Cambridge native. "Go to the North End, and I'll bet four out of five people know it."

But do they know where it came from? The evidence so far suggests that dope slap has been disseminated largely by "Car Talk" itself. The first mention in the Lexis/Nexis database, in 1992, comes in a transcript of the radio show (the guys are prescribing "a dope slap for driving home after the oil light came on"). Since then, the term has been popping up all over -- on a German website, in a Berkeley PhD thesis on Aesop, and in Malaysia's New Straits Times, which runs the car guys' syndicated column. But the Boston Herald leads the nation in non-Magliozzi-generated uses of dope slap, perhaps supporting the theory of local origin.

Further data are needed, though -- so if you too were dope-slapped, deservedly or not, please send particulars. Most valuable would be written evidence earlier than 1992; the truth must be out there, if Tom and Ray were getting cuffed around at midcentury. Me, I'm hoping to see the late Elizabeth Magliozzi enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary as the coiner of the term; but let's get the straight dope, whatever it is.

Slapped around
June 18, 2000

My recent speculations about the origin of dope slap drew a verbal buffeting from one correspondent, who demanded how I could be ignorant of this "old boxing term." He remembers it from the '50s, he says, "when boxing in general was not as regulated and as full of show business. . . . to dope slap someone was to strike them when and where the opponent least expected it," usually in the head, stunning the recipient so that he acted dopey or intoxicated.

This sounds perfectly plausible, but I haven't been able to find corroboration anywhere in print. That doesn't mean it's wrong, though -- and if anyone can find a citation that links boxing to dope slap, this is the place to send it.

David Chirlin of Nashua, N.H., had a different hypothesis: "I believe that the 'Car Talk' bros did society a favor by cleaning up the expression bitch slap, popularized in the counterculture years by such comedians as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. In context, if a woman nagged or verbally annoyed a man beyond a certain point, he would . . . hit her upside the head with what was referred to as a bitch slap. Well, you had to ask."

Yeah, I did. And the friend who originally asked about dope slap had also wondered if it was a benign variant of bitch slap. Again, the evidence is scanty, though bitch slap does make it into print in 1991, a year before dope slap. It's not published as often, for obvious reasons,* but it's still with us -- though, as my friend also told me, it's been adopted (or coopted) for jocular unisex use in certain circles.

But bitch slap wasn't the inspiration for the Magliozzi brothers' dope slap, by their own testimony -- and though I haven't yet asked, I doubt that their mom was an Eddie Murphy fan. So the jury is still out on the dope slap derivation. Keep those cards and e-mails coming.

*Update: Some sources also use dope slap to mean a slap to one's own forehead.

**Editing note: I've removed a superfluous phrase, both unnecessary and ungrammatical, that was stealthily added here by a misguided editor back in 2000. Nobody else cares, but I'm ridiculously happy I can make the correction.

1 comment:

Gregory Lee said...

I have no idea about the term, but the thing itself seems similar to a technique of Zen masters to shock a student into "getting it". Janwillem van de Wetering in "The Empty Mirror" (1971), relating his experiences in a Japanese monastery in the 60s, tells of the Zen master's assistant walking along behind the row of meditating students and occasionally using a stick to rap one sharply on the head, with the same helpful intent.