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.

 

 

6 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.

  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.

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

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,923 other followers

%d bloggers like this: