Whose Masters Of The Universe?

On Language

By Philologos

Published December 24, 2008, issue of January 02, 2009.
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Gloom is certainly widespread as the city’s masters of the universe bump down to earth,” wrote the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen from London on December 17. That phrase has been getting a lot of mileage recently. In a dispatch beginning “Have the Masters of the Universe lost their super powers?” Reuters correspondent Daniel Trotta explained a while ago that the term “masters of the universe” originated when novelist Tom Wolfe used [it] to describe Wall Streeters with too much money and not enough humility, borrowing the name of a line of action figures and a comic book series popular with kids in the 1980s…. In Wolfe’s ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ published in 1987, the term ‘Master of the Universe’ is popularized as a term for a Wall Street giant. The central character, Sherman McCoy, leads the excessive lifestyle of a 1980s bond trader until it comes crashing down.…

Wolfe himself wrote an op-ed column in The New York Times back in September, in which he reported that after the meltdown of Lehman Brothers, he was besieged by people asking him, “Where does this leave the Masters of the Universe now?” His answer: “In Greenwich, Conn., mainly. The hottest, brightest, most ambitious young men began abandoning investment banking in favor of hedge funds six years ago.” Needless to say, that was in pre-Bernie Madoff days. At the moment, a career in hedge funds is about as attractive as one in chimney sweeping.

The question I find myself asking, however, is, is there a connection between “Master of the Universe” in its Wolfean sense of a high-rolling financier and the Hebrew term for God ribbono shel olam, also commonly translated as “Master of the Universe”? Ribbono shel olam (with the first and third words accented on their last syllable), or riboynoy shel oylem, in its Yiddish version (with the accent on the syllable before the last), is a common expression in both languages. It’s an old one as well. One of its earliest occurrences is in the talmudic tractate of Berakhot. In a comment on the biblical story about the duel between Elijah and the priests of the Baal, in which Elijah prays for God to miraculously light an altar and its sacrifice and cries, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God,” we are told:

“Rabbi Abbahu said: Why did Elijah cry ‘Answer me’ twice? To tell us that he prayed to the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘Master of the Universe! Answer me with fire from heaven that will consume what is on the altar — and answer me by causing [the people] not to think that they have witnessed black magic!’”

Elijah’s use of ribbono shel olam in Abbahu’s midrash is typical of how the phrase commonly functions in Hebrew and Yiddish: as an exclamation addressed to God, whether to beseech, to demand or to complain, or as one addressed to someone one is talking to, the way one says “For God’s sake!” in the middle of an English argument. English speakers’ knowledge of the expression probably comes mostly from the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” where Tevye is given the lines: “Master of the Universe, You promised to make the seed of Abraham as the sands of the seashore and as numerous as the stars of the heavens! Lord of all worlds, thank you very much. But don’t you think it’s time to choose someone else?” In Yiddish, one can also turn the words into an ordinary epithet for God by putting the masculine definite article der in front of them, so that, for example, one can say, “Az der riboynoy shel oylem vil, iz altz meglekh,” “If God wants it to happen, anything is possible.”

But does this have anything historically to do with Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe”? As Trotta observes, Wolfe borrowed the name of a popular toy that is also a cartoon science-fiction series, first put on the market in 1981 by Mattel Creations, an already enormously successful toy company that had pioneered the Barbie doll. Although Mattel’s original owners, Ruth and Elliot Handler, were both Jewish, and Ruth, the American-born daughter of immigrants from Poland, must have heard some Yiddish as a child, the Handlers left the company in 1975. They were not involved with the development of the “Masters of the Universe” line or with the battle of its heroes He-Man and his friends Man-At-Arms and Teela, viewed by millions of Americans in a 1987 Hollywood film, to keep the villainous Skeletor from taking over the planet Eternia. While a number of Jewish executives and designers at Mattel were part of the team that developed the product, there is no evidence that any of them coined its name.

But one did not necessarily have to be Jewish, let alone with knowledge of Hebrew or Yiddish, to have heard the expression “Masters of the Universe” back in the 1960s or ’70s. A night at the theater, seeing “Fiddler on the Roof,” would have been enough. Though there’s no way to prove it, my guess would be that whoever came up with the name had encountered it previously in some Jewish context, perhaps without remembering afterward what that was. Words often stick in our minds when we’ve forgotten who said them, and that could be what happened here.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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