A writer for the Washington Post in August this year had it spot on: “ecdysiast is a fancy word for stripper”. It was coined in 1940 and has had only sporadic success, perhaps being thought too odd-looking a word or too high-falutin for so earthy a pursuit. Some reviews of Gypsy, a musical about Gypsy Rose Lee, have said that the word was created for her by H L Mencken, the American critic and author of The American Language.
Not so. He created it in reply to a letter from Georgia Sothern, a celebrated strip-tease artist from Baltimore (in 1968, in This Was Burlesque, Ann Corio and Joseph DiMona commented, “The mere sight of this red-hot, redheaded temptress tossing her hips in fantastic abandon to the wild music of the band caught up everybody in a spell. You didn’t shout from the audience to Georgia to take it off; there was no time.”) She wrote to Mencken:
Strip-teasing is a formal and rhythmic disrobing of the body in public. In recent years there has been a great deal of uninformed criticism levelled against my profession. Most of it is without foundation and arises because of the unfortunate word strip-teasing, which creates the wrong connotations in the mind of the public. I feel sure that if you could coin a new and more palatable word to describe this art, the objections to it would vanish and I and my colleagues would have easier going.
Both practice and term were certainly disliked by many. At the time, New York City prohibited any mention of strip-tease in publicity. Mencken, as you might expect from an American gentleman of the old school, sent a considered reply:
I need not tell you that I sympathize with you in your affliction, and wish that I could help you. Unfortunately, no really persuasive new name suggests itself. It might be a good idea to relate strip-teasing in some way or other to the associated zoological phenomenon of molting. Thus the word moltician comes to mind, but it must be rejected because of its likeness to mortician. A resort to the scientific name for molting, which is ecdysis, produces both ecdysist and ecdysiast.
Letter to Georgia Sothern, 5 Apr. 1940.
Miss Sothern, or her publicist, instantly adopted ecdysiast. It appeared in print for the first time just 14 days later, in a syndicated newspaper report about her forthcoming tour. Not only was Gypsy Rose Lee not the recipient of the name, she hated it, perhaps because she thought Mencken was a highbrow patronising her working-class roots. She responded in an interview soon afterwards:
“Ecdysiast” he calls me! Why the man is an intellectual slob. He has been reading books. Dictionaries. We don’t wear feathers and molt them off ... What does he know about stripping?”
Low Man on a Totem Pole, by Harry Allen Smith, 1941. Slob often appears as snob, on the assumption that it was a transcription error. I suspect Ms Lee knew exactly what she wanted to say.
Whatever Mencken knew, he was certainly conversant with technical vocabulary from classical sources. Ecdysis derives from Greek ekdusis, shedding or moulting. He presumably created ecdysiast from it on the pattern of enthusiast, which certainly described Georgia Sothern.