The Morphology of a Humorous Phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is us”

 

I was reminded of a chain of events in the development of a humorous phrase when I saw a rather poignant cartoon by Jim Morin last month.  It got me to thinking about how these phrases get started and how they change over time.  There is a book called Nice Guys Finish Seventh by Ralph Keyes that goes into the process more deeply, but this is my experience with one phrase.

Walt Kelly’s phrase, “We have met the enemy and he is us” derives from braggadocio during the War of 1812 in which commodore Oliver Hazard Perry reported, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” to William Henry Harrison after the Battle of Lake Erie.  That phrase stands with John Paul Jones’s “I have not yet begun to fight,” and Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) as one of the most famous battle reports in history.

Walt Kelly did not originate “We have met the enemy and he is us” in a cartoon strip.  It was first used on a poster to promote Earth Day in 1970.  Later, the artist put Porkypine and Pogo into a strip and attributed the phrase to Pogo as seen below.

Image

Because it is a pun on a very familiar quote, this phrase caught the collective imagination of Americans.  It is still used in public discourse to describe, for instance, the potential results of man-made global warming.  And cartoonist Jim Morin paraphrased it in a poignant drawing following the murders of servicemen at Ft. Hood in April of 2014.

Image

The phrase lives on, not by constant reuse in similar circumstances, but by clever rephrasing in divergent situations.  That is what has kept this phrase from becoming a cliché.  As it is artfully applied to different scenarios, it continues to tell us about ourselves—and the world around us.

 

 

Advertisements

19 responses

  1. Here is a color version of the picture:

    And another political cartoon take on the phrase:

  2. […] the day, Pogo had a take on it. As for the question of ”we,” Pogo had that figured out in 1970. ”We have met the enemy, and they is us,” his creator had him say, in reference to environmental pollution on an Earth Day poster published […]

  3. You say “Walt Kelly did not originate “We have met the enemy and he is us” in a cartoon strip. It was first used on a poster to promote Earth Day in 1970. Later, the artist put Porkypine and Pogo into a strip and attributed the phrase to Pogo as seen below.”
    In fact his daily strip on August 8th, 1970 also has Porky saying it. I don’t have a date for the strip you show, but clearly he was pretty happy with the phrase and didn’t mind repeating it. I will be happy to send you an image of the 8/8/70 strip if you are interested.
    By the way, Kelly is my favorite comic satirist, ever. No one but Will Rogers has ever matched his ability to make a wicked point and at the same time be “gentle” to the object of his wit.

    1. George:
      Thank you for the comment on Pogo in the “Morphology” blog. I always enjoy reading the points of view of other aficionados of the art form on my writing. I, too, enjoy reading Pogo and appreciate Walt Kelly’s humor. If you want to read more of my research on Kelly, I give him some ink in my masters thesis “More than Words: Rhetorical Devices in American Political Cartoons” by Lawrence R. Bush. In that essay I talk about his use of calligraphy to enhance his satire. I agree with you that Walt Kelly was very clever in the way he presented his political satire. The reason for his cleverness was that the “funnies” was not the place for political satire. Therefore, he disguised it as random animals doing things in a swamp. Any connection to the events in Washington were purely coincidental (like comments in Pat Oliphant’s cartoons by Punk the Penguin). Kelly’s work opened the door to more direct satire in “the funnies” by the authors of Doonesbury, Bloom County, Shoe, Candorville, and Non-Sequitur (to name a few). In addition, the humor of Will Rogers inspired political cartoonists in their drawings. See “Art of the Poison Pens” for one example.

      1. One of my favorite Walt Kelly jokes was: “How do you commit suicide in the Soviet Union?” Answer: “You get a loaf of bread, and lie down on the railroad tracks.” Question: “What do you need a loaf of bread for?” Answer: “Before a train comes along in the Soviet Union, you could starve to death.”

        It was a perfect skewering of the dysfunction of the USSR with black humor that only Kelly could make appealing to a young kid.

      2. Thank you for reading my blog. Walt Kelly had a bunch of “Kellyisms” that made light of difficult situations. That Trans-Siberian Railway never ran on time. Take two loaves of bread.

  4. MSgt R.L.Parker USMC Ret. | Reply

    … r.e., our American values of acceptance and generosity; we have met the enemy and it is not Islam, it is us … (no good deed goes unpunished)

    1. Sarge:

      Your comment is controversial, but deserves to be published. I was once told that when Freud was badmouthed by a peer, his reply was, “What did I ever do for him?” However, this story is apocryphal because I cannot find a source for it. It goes along with your parenthetical comment.

      1. Now I have a new word to look up…
        parenthetical sounds cool…. To just throw out there.

  5. Kelly actually first employed his spin on Perry’s famous quote in 1953, in the Foreword to his book The Pogo Papers. “Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”

    1. I posted that too. I agree with you. It was a spin on a previous comment regarding the human condition.

      1. “Parenthetical” is a pretty heavy word. Don’t try to throw it too far.

  6. […] We have met the enemy and he is us Zionist Report […]

  7. That’s an interesting bit of research. However, the final, and best known version is also the most concise version which is very common in the coinage of new phrases.

    1. Since you seemed interested in the history of the phrase, and whether it originated in the strip or on a poster, I thought you might appreciate knowing Kelly’s first usage of it. That’s all.

      1. I may not have made myself clear. Yes, the research fascinates me. I did not go into that much depth. Had I found what you found, I would have put it into my blog then explained that many original phrases are pared down to the most concise wording before they become popular catch-phrases. Thank you for bringing me up to speed.

  8. In researching this phrase, I couldn’t help but notice the (apparently true) assertion here that Walt Kelly re-used the phrase in 1971, and the (apparently false) assertion that it could not originate with Kelly because it had been used on an Earth Day poster in 1970. Yes, it had been used on an Earth Day poster for April 22, 1970–by a humorist named Walt Kelly, according to my information. Others tried to tell you this above and have either been too delicate and thus misunderstood or else I don’t have the correct information, and don’t understand exactly what they’re getting at either, but here is my source:

    http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/04/we-have-met-enemy-and-he-is-us.html

  9. […] to realize that things can get out of control quickly if people don’t exercise self-control. As Walt Kelly said in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” The only way that nations, […]

    1. So, nations meet their enemies and find out they are us? How apt after the election of Donald Trump.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: