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How Some Piffle About Mr. Pouffle Inspired John Kerry’s ‘Poof’

If anyone thought “Poof!” would go poof in a single column, he or she thought wrongly.

That column ended, you may recall, with my tracing the word with which John Kerry summed up the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to the phrase “Piff, paff, pouf” in the French Jewish composer Jacques Offenbach’s opera “La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein,” first produced in Paris in 1867. Now, however, along comes University of Kentucky professor of musicology Jonathan Glixon, who points out that the expression is older and dates to an earlier opera, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots,” whose debut also took place in Paris, but in 1836.

Les Huguenots,” the libretto for which was written by the well-known French playwright Eugène Scribe, is set against the historical background of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, in which thousands of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, were slaughtered by Catholic mobs. Its plot revolves around an ill-starred love affair between the Protestant aristocrat Raoul de Nangis and the Catholic noblewoman Valentine de Saint-Bris, and in its opening scene, Raoul, accompanied by his valet, Marcel, arrives as a Huguenot emissary at the castle of the Catholic Count of Nevers. Marcel, outraged at having to accept the hospitality of the hated Catholics, expresses his feelings by singing a ferocious Huguenot battle song, which begins: “Papistes, la guerre! / Livrons á la flamme, au fer / leur temples d’enfer./ Terrassons-les, cernons-les,/ frappons-les, perçons-les! / Piff, paff, piff, cernons-les! / Piff, paff, piff, frappons-les! / … Piff, paff, pouf, chassez-les! / Piff, paff, pouf, traquez-les!” (“Papists, it’s war! / We’ll torch and put to the sword / their temples of hell! / Throw them down, ring them round, / Knock them out, run them through! / Piff, paff, piff, ring them round! Piff, paff, piff, beat them, too! / … Piff, paff, pouf, after them! / Piff, paff, pouf, hunt them down!”

“Piff, paff,” as we observed in our first column, is Polish for “bang, bang” and also made its way into Yiddish. It is therefore significant that, like Offenbach, Meyerbeer, whose original name was Jacob Liebmann Beer, grew up in an observant Jewish home and was even more likely than Offenbach to have known some Yiddish since he hailed from Berlin, which was near the Yiddish-speaking areas of Poland. (He also remained loyal to his Jewish identity, whereas Offenbach converted.) Indeed, even if Offenbach knew no Yiddish at all, he would have been familiar with “Piff, paff, pouf” from “Les Huguenots,” which was one of the most successful of all 19th-century operas.

Nor is that quite the end of the Jewish connection of “poof.” After receiving Professor Glixon’s letter, I decided to a bit more research and made the discovery that a highly successful musical comedy called “Piff! Paff! Pouf!” was the hit of the 1904 Broadway theater season. The plot of the play, which featured the popular actor Eddie Foy, involved the plight of one Augustus Melon, the widower of a wealthy heiress whose will decreed that he could not inherit any of her money until he had married off their four daughters — the three eldest of whom have exacting demands: one that she will marry only a man who has never been kissed, a second that her future husband must be famous and a third that she will accept no one of less than saintly character. In the end, suitable matches, quaintly named Lord George Piffle, Macaroni Paffle and Peter Pouffle, are found, Augustus Melon gets his money, and everything ends happily.

How a play of such fatuousness managed to run for 264 straight performances at the Casino Theater on West 39th Street is beyond me — but then again, I haven’t heard the score, which was written by Jean Schwartz, a Hungarian-born Jewish songwriter best known for his 1910 hit “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” On the other hand, the New York Times music critic, who did hear Schwartz’s score on opening night, wrote the next day that it was “even more exclamatory than the title of the play.” The Times’ critic liked two things, though. One was a number toward the musical’s end in which five dancers appeared in clown costumes on a blacked-out stage and played jump-rope with phosphorescent ropes. The other was Foy’s “amiable” and “amusing” acting. (A truly amusing man, Foy, for the last performance of “Piff! Paff! Pouf!” at the Casino, dressed his son, Eddie Jr., later to become a performing artist in his own right, in a miniature replica of his costume and let him perform his part in his place. The audience, it was reported, was so convulsed by the boy’s flawless imitation of his father that it literally screamed with delight.)

The Broadway production of “Piff! Paff! Pouf!” certainly must have contributed to the domestication in American English of the phrase “piff, paff, pouf,” from which “poof” eventually detached itself to become a word in its own right. From Meyerbeer to Offenbach to Schwartz, “poof” has had, one might say, a distinctly Judeo-musical history.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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