Before last week, if you’d asked me to guess the history and derivation of stooge, I’d have ventured that it was a bit of thieves’ cant like fake or phony, probably from the golden age of such words: 18th-century London. And I’d have been dead wrong.
The Stooge (1952). From Wikipedia: “In 1930, entertainer Bill Miller [Dean Martin] believes that he has the ability to become a solo performer. He and his partner Ben Bailey split up and go their separate ways. Miller fails miserably, and his manager, Leo Lyman thinks it would be a good idea to perform with a "stooge." Enter Ted Rogers [Jerry Lewis], who plays an accident-prone foil for Miller. Soon afterwards, Miller's act is a hit.”
Stooge, I have since learned, is a relatively recent addition to the lexicon. It first appeared in print in 1913, in the Saturday Evening Post, and it originally had a theatrical meaning: a stage assistant, or an actor who assists a comedian. Its origin is uncertain; it may have been an alteration of student (jokingly mispronounced STOO-jent), because students were often employed as stage hands in the U.S. It gradually took on additional meanings of “straight man in a comedy act,” “someone who is taken advantage of by another,” and “stool pigeon.”
By the 1930s stooge had crossed the Atlantic and acquired a new meaning, popularized by H.G. Wells: an unquestioningly loyal or obsequious subordinate, a lackey. During World War II the Royal Air Force adopted stooge as shorthand for “a flight during which one does not expect to encounter the enemy”; during the Cold War the epithet “Communist stooge” was attached to anyone who didn’t meet stringent standards for uncritical jingoism, including playwright Arthur Miller, President Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr., and other public figures.
Stooge was in the news last week thanks to a New York magazine story about former libertarian stalwart Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky who had a brief run for president in 2016.
(The headline of that story says “Fox News Congratulates Rand Paul For Being Loyal Trump Stooge,” but the URL substitutes toady for stooge. Toady, a much older word, has a colorful history; it connotes a tad more sycophancy than stooge.)
Three Stooges title card, 1936. Originally billed as “Ted Healy and His Stooges,” the act debuted in movies in 1930 and probably helped shift the meaning of stooge from “stage assistant” to “the butt of a joke.” Read my 2012 post about a famous Stooges expression.
But that’s not the only recent context for stooge. Scott Pruitt, recently confirmed as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has been tagged an “oil and gas industry stooge.” Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman from Hawaii, was labeled “a stooge for Syria’s dictator.” And both candidates for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee were scorned as stooges.
So...the George Soros stooge (Tom Perez) gets chosen for #DNCChair over the Alex Soros stooge (Keith Ellison). The Dems in a nutshell y'all.— Sarah Abdallah (@sahouraxo) February 25, 2017
British Prime Minister Theresa May comes in for some stooge-shaming.
Nor has Donald Trump escaped the stooge label.
Because he is a Russian stooge of whom his propagandist says "his powers will not be questioned": He. Must. Go. pic.twitter.com/duttzf0W4O— Keith Olbermann (@KeithOlbermann) February 24, 2017
The proto-punk band Iggy and the Stooges – originally the Psychedelic Stooges – defiantly reclaimed stooge during its long reign (1967 to 2016). The band was the subject of a 2016 documentary directed by Jim Jarmusch, Gimme Danger.
“Year of the Iguana” (1997)