Sunday, June 04, 2017

`I'd Rather Sit Still and Count My Fingers'

Pop music, pop concert, pop art, pop culture. I assumed “pop” was a recent coinage, probably originating in the nineteen-sixties, and I was wrong. (In my native Cleveland, “pop” also meant soda, a carbonated drink.) On this date, June 4, in 1893, E.A. Robinson was in his second year at Harvard (he would soon leave without a degree, after the death of his father). Robinson is twenty-three. In a letter he invites his friend Harry de Forest Smith to visit him in Cambridge. This is not the familiar, grim-minded Robinson of later years, but the sort of undergraduate for whom “sophomoric” was invented:

“We could have a great time here together for a few days at a small expense. The `pop’ concerts are in full blast with music and beer galore. Or anything else you like—light opera or a good cigar on the common.”

The OED doesn’t cite Robinson but includes several earlier usages. George Eliot, of all people, writes in 1862: “We have been to a Monday Pop, to hear Beethoven's Septett [sic].” All of the early citations are English and quite unself-conscious. In 1891, the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle reports: “The Saturday Pops in Newcastle are in a bad way.” In 1912, the Times of London offers “The audiences consisted largely of the former habitués of the Monday ‘Pops’.” Only in 1962 is an American source cited. The Oakland Tribune reports: “The Pops fill a space in the scheme of things musical, like band concerts, which have been called ‘the poor man's symphony’.”

Digging a little deeper into Robinson’s work, I found another strikingly early and modern-sounding use of “pop.” On Sept. 15, 1897, in a letter to another friend, Edith Brower, Robinson writes:

“Mental medicine, to be any good, must be of a pretty strong quality—stronger than people like. The Prisoner of Zenda [1894 novel by Anthony Hope] is nothing but literary pop-beer, and I shouldn’t advise you to imbibe too much of that sort of thing. I read it half through once, but had to give it up. I’d rather sit still and count my fingers.”


Nige said...

For some obscure reason, the elite sixth-form society at Eton (our most elite 'public' school) is called 'Pop'. It's been going for 200 years and more.

Terry Teachout said...

W.S. Gilbert, "My object all sublime," from "The Mikado":

The music-hall singer attends a series
Of masses and fugues and "ops"
By Bach, interwoven
With Spohr and Beethoven,
At classical Monday Pops.