The etymology of “beazel”

I’d wanted to write last night about Donald Trump’s ever-changing position on mandatory background checks for gun sales, and the pathetic way in which he publicly grovels at the feet of the NRA, but, when I saw that one of my favorite films, Preston Sturges’s delightfully thoughtful 1941 screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels, was going to be on television, I decided to take a little time off. And, apparently, I’m still under its spell. Here it is 24 hours later, and I’m still making my way down Sullivan’s Travels-related rabbit holes. Last night, I was trying to find verification that Charlie Chaplin had stopped Sturges from using footage of his Little Tramp character in the film’s well-known church scene. And, today, I’ve decided to spend my time trying to figure out the etymology of the word “beasel,” which is uttered by the protagonist’s butler about half-way through the film. Here’s that exchange from the film’s script… For those of you familiar with the film, this exchange takes place as Burrows (Robert Greig), the butler, drops off his employer, film director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), and his companion (Veronica Lake), at a Los Angeles hobo camp so that they might be able to hop a train east.

SULLIVAN TO THE GIRL (WHO IS DRESSED LIKE A BOY): You look about as much like a boy as Mae West.

THE GIRL: All right, they’ll think I’m your frail.

BURROWS: I believe it’s called a “beazel,” miss, if memory serves.

[I didn’t know this until I started doing some research, but “frail,” when used as a noun, is — or at least was — a slang term for a slight girl or woman.]

OK, so it’s not something I’m likely to get to the bottom of right now, but here’s what I’ve found thus far.

While the word “beazel” is used in Sullivan’s Travels, most of the discussion around the term seems to be centered around its use by Rosalind Russell two years earlier, in George Cukor’s brilliant 1939 film, The Women. And, in that case, most people seem to think it was used because censors wouldn’t allow either “bitch” or “floozie” to be used, and the producers had to find an alternative. [I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I’ve seen it mentioned that The Women’s published screenplay spells the word “beezle”.] Here, with more on this, is a clip from the July 31, 1939 edition of the Washington, D.C. Evening Star.


And, perhaps because of this article, and that line about how “there was nothing for the studio to do but to coin an entirely new set of words,” a good number of people still seem to think the word was essentially pulled from the ether by the screenplay’s author. The truth, however, seems to be that the word significantly predated The Women, having first been used a quarter of a century earlier, during the era of the flapper.

To the right, you’ll see a piece that ran in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, in Logansport, Indiana, on April 25, 1922. As you’ll notice, the word not only pre-dated The Women by decades, but it’s defined in such a way as make sense in the context of both films… A beazel, as you can read here, is essentially a more experienced flapper. And, by flapper, of course, we mean, a young, fashionable, independent, modern woman, who, according the dictionary, is “intent on enjoying herself and flouting conventional standards of behavior.” [If you’ll recall, American women had just won the right to vote in 1920, with the passage fo the 19th Amendment, so the theme of the independent woman had pretty much permeated popular culture.]

So, Veronica Lake, in Sullivan’s Travels, dresses like a boy in hopes of avoiding suspicion while hopping freight trains with her new-found director friend, gets told that her disguise isn’t working, responds by pretty much saying, “So, they’ll think I’m an innocent, non-sexual, androgynous girl,” only to essentially be told by the butler, “No, it’s pretty clear that you’re an independent, sexual, modern woman who knows exactly what she’s doing.” At least that’s my reading of things. [So, she’s not as naive as a barlow, and not as sexually experienced as a biscuit, but somewhere in between.] If you disagree, let me know.

And, now, I can’t stop reading about flapper slang. The following comes from page 235 of the book, The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances: Outrage at Couple Dancing in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries. As you can see, the definition of beazel remains fairly consistent with what was presented above from 1922.


Or, if you don’t want to talk about beazels, we can talk about common sense gun control, you pettable crumb-gobblers.

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9 Comments

  1. Jean Henry
    Posted August 22, 2019 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    I have a beasel— part beagle, part weasel. His name is Pogo (named after the cartoon weasel like creature. He’s fond of swamps, burrowing and chasing rabbits. Once when he was a tyke, Dr Larson got mad at him for piddling, so after being let back in the house, Pogo lifted his leg for the first time ever and peed on his records. Don’t fuck with a beasel or he will fuck with you. Damn fine critter.

  2. M
    Posted August 23, 2019 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    If your beasel is pettable, Jean, it’s not a beasel, but a biscuit.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted August 23, 2019 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    If there’s a beezel in your hedgerow don’t be alarmed. It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.

  4. Jean Henry
    Posted August 23, 2019 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    He’s an intense snuggler. By far the cuddliest of all my creatures ever. He sleeps under the comforter curled up behind the crook in my knee. He is a fierce and loving beasty who somehow smells good despite his love for running through the brambles in swamp water. I don’t think he’s ever seen a hedgerow but he would surely endeavor to scurry through one if he did. His belly is usually covered in scratches and he cares not, because– JOY. He is a Beasel, not a biscuit. He doesn’t even like dog biscuits.

  5. Kim
    Posted August 23, 2019 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    A “crumpet-muncher” has to be what I think it is, right?

  6. Posted August 24, 2019 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Back in the Obama days, this post would have gotten a lot more love.

    Break free of Trump’s spell, you bell-polishing crumpet-munchers.

  7. Jean Henry
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    My guess is that if one person was blocked, the comments would return to something akin to what it was before. Right now it is a paranoia/Trump defense forum. People stop reading.

  8. dogmatic dolt
    Posted August 25, 2019 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Aloha, I have been sharing the “Flapper Dictionary” with my friends. I am particularly interested in how some of the expressions are still used today in various sub-cultures, but have entirely new meanings. “Airtight”,” bees knees”, “biscuits” and “the berries” are all terms I have seen used in the 21st. century, and have had to look up in the urban dictionary to get an idea of what the writer meant.

    Since the DNC has now decided to throw the election to Trump by not allowing a debate on the greatest existential threat we face, all that seems left to do is to become a good German and do what I’m told. Stories like this will help me pass the time till the end. Thanks again MM for all your efforts to make our world a little better–so sorry our ruling elites are choosing maximum pain for our children and grand-children.
    https://www.rawstory.com/2019/08/dnc-votes-against-allowing-a-climate-change-debate-amongst-the-2020-hopefuls/

  9. iRobert
    Posted August 29, 2019 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    The commenters here are nothing but a bunch of bell-polishing apple-knockers.

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