Was Barbie a Nervous Nellie at the Oscars?

Rob Kyff on

Why is the doll (and movie) called "Barbie"? Why is Nellie nervous, and why is a statuette named Oscar? This column will put you on a first-name basis with terms based on first names.

-- Barbie -- During the 1950s, Ruth and Elliot Handler noticed that their daughter, Barbie, preferred paper dolls resembling adult women to baby dolls. So they created a full-figured teenage fashion doll and then named it for their daughter and the doll's boyfriend for their son. Talk about Ken-do spirit!

-- Nervous Nellie -- The earliest recorded use of this term came in the Baltimore Evening Sun on Oct. 27, 1923, in reference to the "extreme caution" of former U.S. Sen. Frank Kellogg. While some folks speculate that the phrase derives from "Old Nell," a common nickname for a high-strung, enfeebled horse, linguists vote "neigh" on this theory.

-- Oscar -- Several origin stories have been proposed for the nickname of Hollywood's most coveted statuette, but the Oscar for Most Likely Namer goes to Margaret Herrick, who during the 1930s was the librarian for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She once observed, within earshot of a reporter, that the little guy resembled her Uncle Oscar.

-- Jack-o'-lantern -- This term derives from an old Irish folk tale about a cunning character named Jack. After Jack cheats the Devil out of his soul (twice!), the Devil retaliates by forcing him to roam the world forever.

When the Devil flings a flaming coal at him as a parting insult, Jack places the coal inside a hollowed-out turnip to light his travels, creating the first "jack-o'-lantern."

-- John -- No one has been able to flush out the true origin of this term for a toilet. Some trace it to Sir John Harrington, who devised a rudimentary toilet during the reign of Elizabeth I (though it's unclear whether the Queen herself ever gave it a royal flush).


-- Jerry-built -- I wish I could produce the one, true, bumbling Jerry, but all theories about the origin of this term for something poorly constructed are, appropriately enough, shaky.

Some trace the phrase to a Lancashire, England, builder known for shoddy work. Others say it's a contraction of "Jericho" with its tumbling down walls, or a derivative of the French "journiere," meaning "only for the day."

Still others suggest it's a variant of "jury-rigged," which is, in turn, a slurring of the nautical term "jury mast," a flimsy temporary pole that often collapsed. Now THAT'S a jerry-built explanation, if I ever heard one.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2024 Creators Syndicate Inc.




One Big Happy David Horsey Jeff Danziger Drew Sheneman Heathcliff Jerry King Cartoons