Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sockdologizing: Finally Laughing at the Lincoln Assassination

I've taken solace in the fact that Abraham Lincoln died laughing. Sarah Vowell, in her riveting and powerful Assassination Vacation, speaks about how, "it is a comfort of sorts to know that the bullet hit Lincoln mid-guffaw. Considering how the war had weighed on him, at least his last conscious moment was a hoot."

But Vowell expresses confusion at that laugh line, which Booth made one of the most momentous of all theatre history: "Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap."

For years, I thought it was all lost in translation. That funky word "sockdologizing," getting in the way of our modern understanding of this apparently hilarious one-liner.

A few weeks ago, I tried to explain the joke to my class of college students. After delivering the line, prefaced with a warning that it's the biggest laugh-line in the play, the students stared back with blank expressions. I didn't blame them. I grasped for words.

"It's an insult; it's like insult comedy. It means she's a conniving woman. It's like a great line from a bawdy big-budget Hollywood frat-boy comedy today."

My students looked unconvinced. Frankly, I was unconvinced. The line just isn't funny. And it began bugging me. It began really bugging me.

The line haunts me every now and again, I think because I've never understood it. My mind works like this weird melange of pop culture and history, with things swimming into my consciousness unbidden more often than not. I'll be walking down a hallway, when I hear my lips mumble, "sockdologizing old man-trap," and not know how those words got there.

That night, after class, it lingered in my mind. Why was it so funny?

At about 3am, I sat bolt upright in bed. I don't know if I had been attending Our American Cousin in a dream, or if I had been Lincoln in a dream or if it had just taken that long to process.

Mrs. Mountchessington's not the butt of the joke, I explained to myself, finding the words in my mind before I forgot the dream revelation, It's Asa Trenchard who's the butt of the joke. That one revelation is enough to slot everything else into place. The joke lives in the setup, not the punchline.

MRS. M: I am aware, Mr. Trenchard, you are not used to the manners of good society, and that, alone, will excuse the impertinence of which you have been guilty.

ASA: Don't know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal—you sockdologizing old man-trap.

There stands Mrs. Mountchessington, played that night by Helen Muzzy, telling Harry Hawk's Asa Trenchard that he is definitely, "not used to the manners of good society," as a boor of an American transplanted into the depth of prim and proper English manners. This is Asa's moment, his opportunity to show her up.

And he definitely wants to. Asa shouts back, directly to Mountchessington's face that accusatory question. But then it all goes off the rails. Asa steps into Mrs. M's beartrap of a taunt. And it snaps around his leg.

The meaning of, "sockdologizing," doesn't matter. It's all in the setup. Asa's been accused of not knowing the manners of good society, and then proves in one line he not only doesn't know them, but doesn't know he's being judged at all.

Analyzing a joke is the best way to kill it, I know. But I'll now always laugh at that hilarious line, just like Lincoln did right before Booth eased his finger back on the trigger in April of 1865.

And then I'll cry.


  1. "Sockdologizing" is obviously a mangling of "doxologizing," which would mean "saying the doxology (Christian creed)," i.e., a phonily devout Englishwoman. The line shows that he is completely out of place. Not sure he WANTS to fit in with English manners, really. He's just a pissed American letting her have it in a frontier way, which would have gotten Lincoln laughing, since he was a great fan of American vernacular humor One of his favorites was "Petroleum V. Nasby" (David R. Locke), an early Stephen Colbert, assuming the guise of a Copperhead rebel sympathizer in Ohio.

    'In Washington, President Lincoln “read every [Nasby] letter as it appeared”, and enjoyed them so much that he kept a folder of them on his desk, and would frequently read passages from them to visitors “with infinite zest, while his melancholy features grew bright.” He even read them at cabinet meetings, much to the exasperation of the ever serious-minded Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. On multiple occasions the President expressed the sentiment that “for the genius to write such things” he would gladly “swap places” with Locke. At the end of the war, Lincoln sent Locke a letter thanking him for his services.'

  2. No, I think you've got it wrong. Read the script and you'll see that immediately before Asa's speech Mrs. Mountchessington has just revealed herself as a hypocritical, conniving, treasure-hunting snob -- a "sockdologizing old man-trap," in fact. The audience's sympathy at this point is entirely with the American Cousin, who just a few minutes earlier had nobly renounced a fortune for the honest girl he loved. If the line got a big laugh, I suspect it was because his vigorous, unvarnished put-down was exactly the kind of "Gotcha!" line the audience wanted to hear.

  3. I found this page while googling for Nasby, but the Sockdologizing mystery caught my eye. A Sockdologar is a patented spring-loaded double fishhook which was invented in the 1840s. The term appeared in an 1848 "Dictionary of Americanisms", so it must have been fairly common. Though confusion sets in on its origins a mere 20-30 or so years later, a careful look at usage in texts in the 1840s/50s seals the case.

    There's a pic of this hook contraption from the era here: http://www.antiquetackleobserver.com/2010/03/17/spring-lever-hooks/

    It fits neatly in the context of 'mantrap' here: She got her hooks in [a man].

    Um. So... was that really a big mystery?

    1. No one asked what it was. We all are smart enough to look the word up.

      What was asked was WHY it was funny.

      If you're gonna be arrogant and smug and talk down to people, at least answer the question.

      No one asked what it is. If you wanna appear smart, at least try to follow the conversation.

      The really big mystery is: What question is it you think are you even answering?

      Being smug when what you reply is idiotic? Now THAT's funny!

      You doled yourself that sock.

  4. The fish hook idea seem fishy. All sources I've seen date the origin and use of the word prior to the 1940s. We also know it was in common use at the time of Lincoln's assassination from an example where the term was still in use todsy. Sockdolager Rapids in the Grand Canyon were discovered, named, and run by the Powell expedition in 1869. It was the first large rapids the expedition had to run in their boats as there was no way to portage around them. They record how they were beat up by the rapids and hence the name. They were not fishing.

  5. I've thought over your post for a couple weeks. I, like you, would find myself randomly uttering "sockdologizing old man-trap" just walking down the hall. However, I do think your take is wrong. Lincoln, like Asa, was from humble backgrounds but thrust into high society. He would be able to completely empathize with Asa's current station and the dichotomy that necessarily follows. As anyone from a less-than-noble upbringing knows, they always try to advance their lot while remaining sympathetic to those "left behind". Here, Asa belies his "lower station" but also owns it at the same time. He uses a $10 word - incorrectly - in what is, from the standpoint of a lowly commoner - a truly scathing insult. It's important to note that Asa is using sockdologer as a word he's heard and trying to incorporate into a "fancier" lexicon but is using it all wrong, followed by an insulting word that the lower class would recognize as an insult (which makes the insult even funnier). Lincoln would have seen himself and his friends in Asa. To put into 21st century terms:

    "We understand and forgive the way in which you act. It's clearly not your fault, since you're not from high society."

    "Not from high society? That might be true, but I know enough to knock your lung loose, you effusivating damn douche canoe".

    You put that line into a movie and show it back were I come from, and the theater would stand up and howl approval.

    Which leads me to believe that President Lincoln went out laughing, and there's worse ways to go out.

    1. Hello all,
      The line was possibly a double entendre. Per my research into mid-19th century slang, man-trap was also a term for um...a lady's privates. So let us take some solace that Mr.L went out laughing at his favorite kind of humor: off-color.

    2. Lincoln wrote the play specifically for that night.

      Tom Taylor is a pen name. It means:

      Tomb Tailor.

      And read as Hebrew is read, from the right, Tom Taylor becomes:

      ROLYAT MOT - which means:
      Royal Role. State Lie. Word Mote.

      I can tell from your post you are intelligent and have a better grasp of language than the average person.

      Abraham Lincoln means:
      Father of the Military. Money Line.

      It meant Abraham Lincoln was also a pseudonym. His life story was partially fabricated. He lived in Illinois and Indiana among the people for a time so he could govern them when he got older.

      Read my other post here to grasp what Our American Cousin means.

      Lincoln and his son, John Wilkes Booth, played the original characters the first time the play was staged - under additional pseudonyms.

      Joseph Jefferson was a joke about Jefferson Davis - as Davis was also Robert Todd Lincoln. Jefferson Davis was Lincoln's son.

      Lincoln was Prince Albert.
      Jefferson Davis was his son, Prince Edward III.

  6. The line is only funny if you understand so-called "Da Vinci Code" etymology -- which is really just age-old military code.

    It means: Don't worry, GI's. Booth is only doling a sock to me in the head. (The gun was a prop. A Derringer. Der Ringer. Meaning it made a lot of noise. Was a stage gun filled with blanks that only doled a sock to the back of his head - only delivered a punch.)

    Booth was an ACTOR. Lincoln's fake murder was part of the play.

    Abraham Lincoln was one if several identities of Prince Albert. Mary Todd Lincoln was Queen Victoria.

    The Civil War was faked as a means to free the slaves. The battles at places like Gettysberg were STAGED. No one died in the Civil War. That's why we call it CIVIL.

    Force Corps and seven years ago...

    John Wilkes Booth was a STAGE name. John means military. John like Can.

    John Will Key His Booth.

    John Wil-Ke-'S Booth.

    JOHN WILL KEES BOOTH also reads:

    "Military Death Contract Legends. Tin Ghosts Both."

    [John WILL Kees Sb Boo Bo'th.]

    Will like Trust - a legal contract.
    Key like a map LEGEND.
    Sb is Tin on Periodic Table.
    Boo like ghost.
    Bo'th (a cipher of booth).

    It means:
    Booth had a lefal military contract to fake kill Lincoln in his booth. Turning both men into 'keys' - legends. And that both men then had to have fake death identity changes.

    Same way they faked Kennedy's and Oswald's deaths 100 years later.

    This was done to KEEP Lincoln (Prince Albert) and his family safe after he freed the slaves.

    Booth: sock-doled.
    Then came: the lagging G.I. zing man-trap.

    He 'socked' Lincoln in the back of the head (with a daring ringer: a Derringer) before jumping onstage so everyone would see him, thus setting his own "man-trap".

    Booth fake broke his leg as a further means to identify that he was part of the CAST.

    That's what "Break a leg" means:
    Get cast.

    Booth "broke a leg" onstage. It symbolized: He was CAST.

    John Wilkes Booth was ALSO known as:

    William Todd Lincoln

    Lincoln changed his identity to Mark Twain.

    Lincoln also doubled in identity as William Seward, the Secretary of State who was NOT killed. So when the headlines read: "Lincoln Killed. Seward Lives." Insiders would know he (Prince Albert) was not really dead.

    Sockdolizing old man trap

    Sock Dole Lag G.I. Zing Gold Man Trap.

    The laughter in the audience was part of the show. Several audience members were military and knew what was going to happen and when.

    John Wil-Ke-S Booth aka William Todd Lincoln became Theodore Roosevelt.

    THAT's the significance of the line.

  7. Did you hear this playing the Beatles' Revolution 9 backwards, just curious...

  8. Fish hooked man trap. "The fishermen are revealed as all wise." Shot on Good Friday, passed on Holy Saturday, found practically uncorrupt 45 years after being in a damp tomb where the Ameeican flag draped over him had disintegrated. Probably a good sign of his final disposition.