“Look at Mutt and Jeff!” I showed my teenager a picture of our cat and his brother.
“Who?” He gave me a look that immediately reminded me that I speak an older version of English.
I knew tucked in the back of my brain that my parents and grandparents used to say ‘Mutt and Jeff’ and that the phrase had to do with a cartoon from long ago.
A quick Internet search pulled up the cartoon by Bud Fisher, first published in 1907. It apparently ran until 1983, so no wonder Mutt and Jeff made it into our language.
When I used it for my cat and kid, I meant two goofballs, but it can also mean two people of wildly different sizes or ‘tinhorns’–people who pretend to have money in order to look important like gamblers shaking their dice in a tin cup.
Comics strips like Peanuts and Baby Blues still make me laugh and one of my colleagues even pastes new ones to our copy machine. But todays strips may not have the power they once did to influence our language in the early part of the 20th century.
At least now my son knows about Mutt and Jeff, so he can use it the next time he sees a goofy pair.
From the look on his face, I bet he won’t.