Is the Bird the Final Word?

Johnny-on-the-Spot …by John Foster

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”

Do you believe that?

I think I first heard the phrase on the playground during recess at Lincoln Heights Elementary School in Mansfield, Ohio.

Someone would hurl a verbal insult at someone and the “target” would respond with “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”.

Normally that was it.

No in-school suspensions.

No counselling.

No lawyers.

We’d be back to swinging or teeter-tottering until the next person had a bone to pick with someone.

The phrase was intended to be used as a defense against name-calling and verbal bullying.

“Sticks and stones” may have first appeared as an old adage in “The Christian Recorder”, a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

We saw it again in 1872 in “Tappy’s Chicks and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature”, a scarce antiquarian book by Anne Jane Cupple./

It was first attested in “Folk-in Phrases of Four Counties” by G.F. Northall in 1894.

“Back in the day”, we did our verbal assaults “face-to-face”.

None of this “text and hide” or “e-mail and cower” stuff that takes place today.

I also think our skin was thicker in those days.

I know that because we used to put “mercurochrome” on our boo-boos.

The FDA banned it as an over-the-counter antiseptic in 1998 due to “its inefficiency in killing micro-organisms, it’s staining property and fear of mercury toxicity from mercurochrome being absorbed through the skin”.

Some called it “monkey blood”.

The orange look was a bit of a badge of courage we kids wore “back in the day”.

We also knew nothing of sunscreen (that wasn’t added until some time in the 70’s) although Coppertone used to help us “quickly tan our skin”.

Lindy West called the famous “Coppertone Girl” ‘an oddly-sexualized orange baby whose pants are eternally being eaten off by a dog.’

We also drank water via green plastic hoses cooking in the hot summer sun.

(Remember that horrible taste if you didn’t run the water long enough?)

We found out that things we consumed or dabbed on our limbs might hurt us as well as words and not just “sticks and stones”.

So, what’s the final word on “words?”

It has to be The Trashmen”

In 1963, this garage band from Minneapolis, Minnesota (hardly surfing territory) released the song “Surfin’ Bird.”

To quote;

“The bird is the word.

A-well-a everybody’s heard about the bird.

B-b-b bird, b-bird’s the word.

A-well, a bird, bird, bird, bird, bird is the word.

A-well, a-bird, bird, bird, well-a-bird is the word.

Well, everybody’s talking about the bird

A well-a-bird, surfin’ bird, bird, brr. brr, ah, ah

A well-a-don’t you know about the bird

Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word.

Surfin’ bird.

B-b-b aah, aah!

Pa pa pa pa pa (for a total of 28 times!)

Ooma mow mow, papa ooma mow mow.”

Ad infinitum.

The song actually was a top 4 hit on the Hot 100 when it charted in 1963.

The Trashmen combined two choruses of a pair of R&B classic from the doo-wop group, “The Rivingtons”

(“The Bird is the Word” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow”.)

The Trashmen did a road trip in 1963 because of the song and appeared on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand in January of 1964.

Clark, “America’s oldest teenager”, described “Surfin’ Bird’ as “one of the most strange and unusual songs of 1963”.

The Trashmen’s lead singer and drummer Steve Wahren lip-synched the hit solo because the band’s management wouldn’t pay to fly the other 3 original band members to Philadelphia to appear on the show.

At one time, The Trashmen were called “the premiere landlocked Midwestern surf group of the 60’s.”

“Surfin’ Bird” can be heard in the movies, “E-T”, “Full Metal Jacket” and “Pink Flamingos”.

In 2008, an episode of “Family Guy” revolved around the song.

In conclusion, “Sticks and stone may break my bones but names will never hurt me” as long as “the bird is the word.”

It might be the last word.

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