Nanki-poo

Some of you who read yesterday’s note on irenic may have followed the link to the video of Nana Mouskouri’s song “Eirene” (“Irene”). That version is sung entirely in the original Greek, though there is an English version also sometimes sung (see www.lyricsvip.com/Harry-Belafonte-and-Nana-Mouskouri/Irene-Lyrics.html for transliterated Greek lyrics and www.uulyrics.com/music/nana-mouskouri/song-erene/ for a questionable transcription of the English version). Listening to it, you may have heard her sing “Irenie-poo, Irenie-poo.”

Well, that seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? We know -poo as a cutesy diminutive suffix used with children and beloveds – and (perhaps more often nowadays) on certain words that already have the diminutive -ie, as in drinkie-poo (as in “Would you like a little drinkie-poo, Dino?”). Why not with Mouskouri’s heroine? Ah, pity, though, she’s really singing που pou, which is Greek for “where”. But that does lead us to the question of just where that -poo we use comes from.

The Oxford English Dictionary isn’t a world of help on it. “Origin uncertain; probably an arbitrary formation” it says. And its earliest citation is from 1932. But it seems quite reasonable that the name Nanki-poo, one of the characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado, is using the same -poo. And The Mikado was first performed in 1885.

So is The Mikado the source of this suffix? Are subsequent users citing W.S. Gilbert? Well, there was probably something of an influence there, but Gilbert’s use of it actually could be evidence that it was already in use. After all, look at the names of some of the other characters: Pish-Tush (two time-honoured words expressing contempt or impatience), Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo (which looks like a reversal of Bo-Peep as in the one who lost her sheep, but is in fact also an old name for peek-a-boo), and Pitti-Sing (baby talk for pretty thing). Very nursery-school, but also using established bits.

But then also look at another name from The Mikado: Pooh-Bah. That name really did get its start there, but pooh and bah are, similar to pish and tush, two very old (pre-Shakespearean) interjections of disappointment, impatience, or contempt (and, yes, that pooh may be related to the excremental one – oh icky-poo – and surely is related to the famous bear of little brain). The poo in Nanki-poo could just be drawing on that pooh along with the cutesy boo that we see in, among other places, peek-a-boo (remember peep-bo?) – which dates from before 1600 – and tickety-boo, a 20th-century formation. (I use it in Licky-boo, a pet name for the LCBO, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which runs the alcoholic beverage stores in these parts.) I must say that Nanki-poo really looks like a child’s nickname for someone named Nancy (but note that Nanki-poo is the male romantic lead in the play). Mind you, it also has a ring of Yankee, skanky, Nanking, and maybe nasty…

Well, pooh. I haven’t been able to sort out for sure which comes first, the -poo or the Nanki. And now I think I need a drinkie-poo. But at least I know where to find Nankipoo.

No, that’s not a typo. Nanki-poo may be a character in The Mikado, but Nankipoo is a very small town in Tennessee, about 60 miles from Memphis (it’s a turn west off route 51 between Ripley and Dyersburg). And if you want a little reminder about folk etymology, no need to sit in solemn silence – there’s a nice little website for Nankipoo (www.nankipoo.com) that will deliver a short, sharp shock:

The name Nankipoo came from the name of an Indian chief that was reportable to have been located in this area. In my flower garden I still can dig up on occasion an arrow head or two. I don’t know any other details of this tribe, if someone does please let me know. Or at least that’s the story I was always told when I was a kid.

Another story of the origin of the name is, a unknown person was working in a local post office and they needed to think of a name for the area. This person had just seen a play and one of the characters was named Nankipoo or maybe Nan-ki-poo.

Well, Larry L. Miller’s Tennessee Place Names confirms the latter suspicion, you will be relieved to know. The guy who set up the general store, Thomas Bomer, applied for a post office, and the first name he requested was rejected because it was already in use. So either Bomer or someone at the post office suggested Nankipoo. Yes, this was in the 1880s, and The Mikado was very popular at the time.

(But let’s not be too hard on those who thought it might be an Indian name. After all, we get Kickapoo Joy Juice from the comic strip Li’l Abner and the Poohawk Indians from the strip Tumbleweeds. And Calgarians over 40 will remember that Canada Olympic Park used to be called Paskapoo.)

4 responses to “Nanki-poo

  1. Another great post. I got to sing in the chorus of a production of the Mikado, it is a brilliant piece of work. As for Nanki-poo and “a child’s nickname for someone named Nancy” – the character is young and certainly not portrayed as anything near ‘rugged’. “Nancy” is a long-used epithet for effeminate men, so this may have been a sort ‘easter egg’ by G&S. Just a thought.

  2. Tumbleweeds, by the way, was drawn by Tom K. Ryan between 1965 and 2007. Something I had forgotten: the name of Tumbleweeds’ sway-backed horse was Epic!

  3. My own theory is that “nanki-poo” was Victorian nursery-speak for a handkerchief, and that “katisha” (probably with the accent on the second syllable) was a polite sneeze. As all the other names in the opera have meanings, it seems unlikely that the names of two such major characters don’t.

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