Betty and Butthole

No, those aren’t the female counterparts of Beavis & Butt-Head—they’re the featured aspects of Bob Montana’s April 2, 1947 Archie daily strip, the one in which Archie tells Betty his ushering job at the Riverdale cinema “gets kind of butthole at times.”

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This strip created a stir in some circles when it first appeared in our Eisner-winning 2010 Archie: 1946-1948. A book reviewer for one of the newspapers in my town of residence called special attention to this particular strip in her coverage of the book, noting that, “Googling ‘Archie + butthole’ generates literally dozens of hits.” We ran the strip again in this space in a February “travel back in time” piece showing the contents of a number of strips on the day-after-April-Fool’s-Day in 1947…and that appearance generated even more notice.

 

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The American Dialect Society was founded in 1889 and continues strong today, more than a century later. The Society is “dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, and of other languages, or dialects of other languages, influencing it or influenced by it. [Their] members include academics and amateurs, professors and students, professionals and dilettantes, teachers and writers, undergraduates and graduates. Anyone can join the society!”

On May 9th, Society representative Bonnie Taylor-Blake sent me this note:

Hi, Bruce.

As you may have heard, there’s quite a bit of interest in the language contained in that Archie strip published on 2 April 1947 … The appearance of “butthole” in a 1947 comic strip is currently a big topic of conversation among members of the American Dialect Society’s email discussion list (ADS-L).  Linguists and lexicographers there are puzzled, mostly because (so far) we don’t have evidence that “butthole” was being used by Americans in the sense of boring or dull. It’s even debatable whether it was being used as a synonym for “dead-end.” It may have been used in the sense we’re accustomed to (blush), but evidence for that usage in the 1940s is difficult to find given that off-color connotation. Some have speculated that the appearance of “butthole” must have been the work of Montana’s letterer (if he had one) or possibly vandalism elsewhere in the production line. In the end, though, the question is whether “butthole” had a common meaning that was an alternative to how we now understand the word (blush).

Would you mind my asking you for your thoughts on this?  I’m particularly interested in whether you know if Montana’s use of “butthole” and its appearance in family newspapers raised eyebrows soon after the 2 April strip was published. How did Archie readers of the time react to Archie’s observation? Or did it pass without comment? I assume, based on your observation, that Archie aficionados have been aware of the appearance of “butthole” in that issue of the strip.  What’s the reaction among fans of the strip?  Did Montana ever say anything about his use of “butthole”?

In my May 11th response, I told Bonnie we’ve seen no reaction to Montana’s strip from the ’40s, and speculated on a few reasons why that might be possible. I was able to speak with more certainty on the matter of “vandalism” of the strip by other hands:

Based on what we know, Bob Montana did all his own work in the 1940s, including doing the lettering. By the 1960s, when he was in his forties, Montana had an assistant who likely shouldered the bulk of the lettering responsibilities, but Montana was only 27 years old when the strip in question appears—he likely wasn’t making enough money to afford an assistant. And even if Montana did employ a letterer, there is zero chance the use of “butthole” could have passed by him unnoticed. The process of producing strips is: writing/penciling/lettering/inking…There is absolutely no doubt Montana penciled and inked his Archie comic strips, which means even if he passed the penciled art to someone else so a written script could be lettered onto the art, the results would have passed back to him so he could finish the piece by inking it. And if a letterer took the finished artboard after it was inked and inserted “butthole” for a prank just before it was shipped to the syndicate, the letterer would have been out of a job so fast the air would have crackled.

The concept of a syndicate wag changing the text to insert “butthole” before the strip was printed is not a billion to none, but it is a billion to one shot. Syndicates don’t want controversy because it can lead to newspapers dropping features, which takes money out of syndicate pockets; if “butthole” was potentially offensive, an employee changing the original word to the more controversial term would be cruising for a firing. Even if “butthole” was not yet a common term, changing Montana’s text without his knowledge or approval would also be a great way to lose one’s job (syndicate managers don’t want to placate irate cartoonists any more than they want to deal with irate editors and their readerships!).

So—”vandalism” by a Montana letterer or syndicate employee is the remotest of remote possibilities. Does this indicate “butthole” did not have the same meaning we attach to it today? Alternately, could it have been regional slang at the time (Montana visited all then-forty-eight states during his parents’ Vaudeville days and spent his teen years in New England, specifically New Hampshire and Massachusetts)? If that’s the case, Montana may have included it knowing it had meaning—whatever that meaning might be—only in a specific geographical area and would pass essentially unnoticed by a national audience.

Bonnie replied to me later that day, saying:

I really appreciate your insight on this.  (There’s great stuff in what you’ve shared!)  I think the general consensus, given dozens of e-mails passed around the listserv, was that “butthole” must’ve been pretty innocent/innocuous, and not a reference to an anatomical feature. (But how weird it is to see that word on the funny pages in 1947!) But then the question for linguists/lexicographers has been 1) what did Archie mean? (the job was boring? dead-end?), and 2) how come we’ve not run across this before?  It’s pretty clear that this bit of slang has gone unnoticed by those who collect bits of slang. (If it has gone unnoticed, it’s a great find!  Maybe it existed in Vaudeville circles or in New England, as you’ve suggested, or perhaps in the military?)

ADS continues to ruminate on and research this matter, and it’s certainly a pleasure and an honor to have helped prompt this line of inquiry among such a distinguished group. If further insight emerges, we’ll be sure to let you know! Meanwhile, you can learn more about the American Dialect Society—and keep watching, because the first Archie Sundays collection has just been published.

 

 

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What could be better than a collection Bob Montana artwork? How about a companion collection presenting his pulchritudinous pencils (and inks) in full color? And who knows what sensational bits of slang will be revealed in this volume …?

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