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Pleased as Punch

Q From Rab Spence, UK: I am curious as to the origin of the phrase as pleased as Punch. It has been suggested to me that it must come from the puppet in Punch and Judy, but I am not entirely happy with this explanation, as no one can tell me why it should have originated there. Can you help?

A Perhaps some cultural footnotes might be in order. Though Punch and Judy puppet shows are by no means unknown outside the UK, and the term pleased as punch is also common, the tradition of the entertainment of that name is mainly a British one, associated in most people’s minds with childhood memories of sitting on the sand during summer holidays at the seaside, watching the antics of puppet Mr Punch in his candy-striped booth.

Though no two shows are quite alike and the story has evolved a lot in the last four centuries, the traditional plot has Mr Punch kill his infant child, then beat his wife Judy to death. He is thrown in prison but escapes using a golden key. He then kills a policeman, a doctor, a lawyer, the hangman, death and the Devil. He murders everyone with huge pleasure, each time squeakily repeating his catchphrase, “That’s the way to do it!”

It’s the enormous satisfaction of Punch with his awful deeds that led to the idiom as pleased as Punch appearing at the beginning of the nineteenth century for somebody who was delighted. Punch’s pride in outwitting every figure of authority also led to as proud as Punch as an alternative.

Incidentally, the puppet shows started to appear in Britain at the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s (Samuel Pepys mentions going to see one in October 1662). The puppets were string ones, not the hand ones of modern days, and the entertainment was very much designed for adults rather than children. Its name then was Punchinello, of which Punch is the short form. The show had been imported from the character called polichinello in the commedia dell’arte in Italy, where its original was known in the Neapolitan dialect as Polecenella, perhaps a diminutive of pollecena, a young turkey cock, in reference to its beak, which looked a bit like the puppet’s long red hooked nose.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 May 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 8 May 2004.