Several months ago comrade Dave Ward and I were discussing songs that get stuck inside one's head. Dave told me that they're called "earworms", and we each offered up examples to annoy the other, e.g., "It's a Small World"—that infamous bit of fluff that I heard decades ago playing on a loop at Disneyland [1]. Alas, I still can't forget it.

And that discussion reminded me of the Robert McCloskey "Homer Price" stories that I read a decade or so before that [2]. In one, an earworm spreads like a plague through the small town where Homer lives. Our boy hero has to find and unleash a countermeasure earworm to save everyone. It's like the notion of fighting computer virus infections with counter-infections, but far ahead of its time. And amazingly, Mark Twain was there even earlier [3]. A 2007 blog post by "The Old Coot" [4] summarizes the situation:

Back a long time ago, Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, wrote a short story called "Punch, Brothers, Punch" (included in Punch, Brothers, Punch! And Other Sketches, 1878) which featured the following little verse:

Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!


Punch, brothers! punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!

The idea of the story was that anyone who read or heard those lines was totally unable to get them out of his/her/its head. ... The only way to exorcise oneself was to recite the verse to another person, who promptly became hag-ridden in turn.

Robert McCloskey, in one of his Homer Price stories ("Pie and Punch and You-Know-Whats," in Centerburg Tales, 1951), took the idea a little farther. In this story, it's a song about a "hip-high hippopotamus" that is driving the residents of Centerburg crazy. In this case, however, singing the song to another person simply means that two people are singing it instead of just one. Finally Homer comes up with an idea, and leads the affected (afflicted) citizens to the library. Unfortunately, he can't remember what the book looks like, but finally he finds it - and loudly recites "Punch, brothers...." This does the trick, of course, and now everyone is babbling about trip slips instead of the hippopotamus. Conveniently, the librarian, who is on her way out of town on vacation, walks in on them. "Tell her, everybody!" Homer cries, and tell her they do, in unison. This lifts the curse for them, and someone escorts the librarian to the train station (so she can carry the poem out of town) while everyone else collapses in exhaustion from all the singing.

Thankfully, merely reading about the earworm in a book didn't result in spreading it.

^z - 2009-06-09