CRITICAL MASS: The pompatus of love, or fun with epistemology

— A few weeks ago I was walking the dogs and listening on headphones to The Show With No Name, Tommy Smith and David Bazzel's morning talk program on KABZ-FM, 103.7-the Buzz. (Full disclosure: I'm a regular contributor to the program on Thursdays, discussing old people's music and candy bars I remember from my childhood.)

Anyway, the talk came around, as it inevitably does, to a phrase in Steve Miller's 1973 hit song "The Joker" and the line: "Some people call me Maurice, and I speak of the pompatus of love."

Now that's what it says: "The pompatus of love." Miller doesn't sing "properties of love" or "pompousnessof love," he sings "pompatus." That's what was printed on the lyrics when they released the sheet music of the song a year or so later. If you look on the Internet (the "endless digital forest of mediocrity" described by Andrew Keen in his new book TheCult of the Amateur) you can find all kinds of alternate spellings for "pompatus," but trust me, the one I'm using is the most accepted. That's how they spelled it in the 1996 movie The Pompatus of Love.

Anyway, political consultant and media superstar Bill Vickery, who was on the show with Tommy and David that day, wondered aloud what "pompatus" meant. Since I knew the answer, when I got home I shot an email off to the show explaining that pompatus is a nonsense word, a neologism coined by Miller in his 1972 song "Enter Maurice," which included the lyric "My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice so I can whisper sweet words of epismetology in yourear and speak to you of the pompatus of love."

"The Joker" referenced "Enter Maurice" and several other earlier Miller songs like "Space Cowboy" and "Gangster of Love." It also borrowed from the 1954 Clovers hit "Lovey Dovey," which contained the lyric "really love your peaches, want to shake your tree."

But basically, I said, it meant nothing. Miller made up "pompatus" because he thought it sounded cool, or because it hinted at a depth that the song did not in fact contain. I mean, c'mon, it's only rock 'n' roll.

This explanation did not satisfy my friend Vickery, who read part of it on the air, then proceeded to dismiss my answer as somehow non-responsive. I still didn't tell him what pompatus meant, he argued.

That set me off on a journey to find the true meaning of pompatus. And like any high school junior, I started with the dictionary.

A long time ago, a not particularly trustworthy someone told me that pompatus was an actual word and that it could be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Well, it can't - at least not in the Compact Oxford English Dictionary we have in the office.

On the other hand, "pompatic" is a word that means "pompous." But it's clearly not what Miller is singing in either "Enter Maurice" or "The Joker." (And not to put too fine a point on it, since we are talking about rock 'n' roll lyrics, but it'd be grammatically disastrous to refer to the "pompatic of love" - "pompousness of love" would be a little better.)

There's another clue. Chicago Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra once asked Miller what it all meant.

"It was like 'Space Cowboy,' Dave," Miller said. "It was something that got tossed off without any thought or any reason. I get about six letters a year from lawyers going, 'Steve: what does the Pompatus of Love mean?' I refuse to tell anyone anything."

So Miller was stonewalling. Not a bad strategy for an artist who wants to preserve his work's inherent mystery.

My next stop was the Internet, where I found a Cecil Adams "Straight Dope" column from1996 that was precisely on point. Adams is a pioneer debunker of urban myths and legends, and he's been writing Straight Dope since 1973. It appears in dozens of (mostly alternative) newspapers. He wouldn't lie to us.

In his column, Adams credited the legwork of actor Jon Cryer - probably best known as Duckie in Pretty in Pink or Alan Harper in the TV show Two and a Half Men - and his assistant J.K. Fabian (guys who write columns for alternative newspapers have assistants?) for blowing the pompatus case wide open. (Cryer was one of the stars and a writer of theaforementioned movie The Pompatus of Love, the plot of which concerned guys sitting around speculating about the meaning of the titular phrase.)

Fabian, acting on a tip from a reader, discovered a recording of a 1954 hit by a doo-wop group called the Medallions. It was called "The Letter" and was written and sung by a then-16-year-old named Vernon Green. "The Letter" contained the lyric "Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality and discuss the puppetutes of love."

Back to "Enter Maurice": "My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice so I can whisper sweetwords of epismetology in your ear and speak to you of the pompatus of love."

Considering that Steve Miller was never much concerned with his lyrics - "Fly Like an Eagle," "Jet Airliner," "Rock 'n Me" - and that he wasn't shy about borrowing lines he liked (it's an old blues tradition that goes back to African griots) for other songs (as in the lift from the Clovers), we might speculate that perhaps Miller, a huge R & B fan, had on some occasion come across "The Letter." He misheard Green's lyrics and inadvertently coined his nonsense words.

But wait, there's more. While he was doing research for the movie The Pompatus of Love, Cryer also came across a copy of "The Letter," and tracked down the songwriter Green, who was still playing gigs in 1996. (He died of a stroke in 2000.)

Cryer and Fabian ended up interviewing Green, and Cryer played Miller's "The Joker" - which he'd amazingly neverheard - for the old guy. Reportedly Green was highly amused.

Fabian asked Green specifically about the words "puppetutes" and "pizmotality" that appear in the song. And Greenexplained them!

"Pizmotality," he said, "described words of such secrecy they could only be spoken to the one you love." And as for "puppetutes"? Well, Green explained, that was a word he made up to describe his perfect woman, a "paper-doll fantasy figure" that would fulfill his every desire.

Now understand, there's no definitive copy of Green's lyrics for "The Letter," there's no standard spelling for "puppetutes" or "pizmotality." I'd always assumed that in "Enter Maurice," "epismetology" was a slight mispronunciation of "epistemology," or the study of the limits of knowledge. While I like that theory because it actually makes the lyric mean something, it's more likely Miller just liked the way the syllables slid together and sounded profound.

"Puppetutes" is an interesting coinage in that it seems obvious that the root word is "puppet." As for the "utes"? I found a fascinating discussion of the whole "pompatus" question on a University of Pennsylvania-hosted Web log site called "Language Log." In 2005, a professor of linguistics and computer science named Mark Liberman offered a theory that the teenage Vernon Green "meant it as a blend of puppets and prostitutes." Liberman suggests that the young Green "probably knew the word prostitute only as a fancy term for a sexually attractive and available woman."

(The URL for the Language Log post is too long and complicated to reprint here, but you can get there by Googling: Puppetutes, Vernon Green, prostitutes.)

In the 1970s, disc jockey Wolfman Jack adopted the phrase"the pompatus of love," and unless someone has a better idea, I'm willing to believe that he copped it off one or the other of the Miller records. In The Guess Who's 1973 single, "Clap For the Wolfman," there's a clip of Wolfman using the phrase.

So my final answer is: When Steve Miller sings about "the pompatus of love" in his 1973 song "The Joker," he's referencing an anatomically correct, morally relaxed paper doll.

Next week on Word Expeditions, the old Nantucket whaling term with only one known citation: Caterjunes.


Style, Pages 31, 36 on 02/10/2009

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