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.


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.


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.




34 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:

  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.

  10. […] paraphrase Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip character, Pogo, we have met the world’s worst nuclear threat, and it is […]

  11. Yeah, it’s still “us,” especially with Trump having the codes.

  12. You guys are driving me Krazy.I had a pogo cartoon on my dorm room wall(1966-1969) of pogo with a folded paper hat on his head brandishing a wooden sword saying” I’ve met the enemy and it is us”.(?).It was the center piece of a collage that covered all 4 walls and the ceiling.My “roomie” and I would sometimes greet each other with fake sword fight and repeating this quote.This clearly preceded 1970,that every one seems to agree was the first Pogo appearance of quote on the earth day poster.Help me put this to rest.Please,no 60’s jokes.

    1. Although I was not in college during the 1960s, I do remember those days (I was not old enough to do what it took to forget them). As for the famous quote, I have no record that Walt Kelly produced a cartoon with even the paraphrase you mention before the 1970s although it is possible that it has eluded me. I will keep my eyes open.

  13. There is a meme on the Internet, that was popular a few years ago in atheist circles, of Barry Goldwater, the conservative that ran for president against Lyndon Johnson in 1964 with a quote saying

    “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

    I don’t see this meme too much any more. What I do see is more and more people on all sides of all issues refusing to compromise. Anger is growing and growing and our political leaders are as blind to it as anyone.

    Yet another meaning to the phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    1. Perhaps the meme can be corrected to “We have met the enemy and he is God.”

      1. But who is god?

        Larry Bush

    2. If Puritans get abortion repealed, you will see that concern a lot more often. There are folks who want to move the capital to Westboro Baptist Church.

  14. […] “We’ve met the enemy and he is us”. He is a minority of us as it turns out. But he is still in power and in control of our government. We need to throw him out. We need to keep the curtain drawn. We need to see him naked without the emperor’s clothing that has been fooling us. […]

  15. I think you lost me at seeing him naked. I propose one more morph of the phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is US President.”

    1. He may be just what the US needs. Trump has shaken us out of our reverie that things will just go along as they have and that both parties are equally bad. If Trump does not motivate America to vote for real change and respectability and demand responsibility in the administration, the US is in real trouble.

      Larry Bush

  16. […] Humor in America, The Morphology of a Humorous Phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is us” […]

  17. […] how best to respond to the notion that they are the enemy of the people recalls the ironic phrase often associated with Walt Kelly’s cartoon possum Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is […]

  18. Perhaps violent, extremist rhetoric is now the mainstream. Let’s hope it’s a phase and rhetoric can go back to being mundane.

    Larry Bush

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