Albert in a Can, Women in Binders

The joke is an old one.

Boy on telephone: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”

Tobacconist: “Yes, we do.”

Boy: “Well, you’d better let him out before he suffocates!”

Readers of Lingua Franca will recall that Albert was a noble gentleman married to the queen of England. Fewer readers might know that Prince Albert is a popular brand of tobacco. Fewer still might recognize the designation tobacconist (purveyor of an addictive herb), a professional term now as rare as cooper or  carter or candlestick maker.

Watching a replay of last night’s presidential debate I was reminded of Albert’s dilemma. What were those women doing in those binders? How’d they  get in there? And by the way (checking my calendar to be sure it was 2012), what decade was I living in?

Governor Romney’s misspeak concerning access to the names of qualified female job candidates—the now viral phrase “binders full of women”—has become the giggle moment of this debate.

Binders full of women. Imagine Staples with an S&M aisle.

At you can contemplate, thanks to the tumblrati, an assortment of images of women in binders, women being put into binders, women pictured with binders, and so forth. At least one image riffs on the three-ring binder, which must be very uncomfortable indeed.

I’ll be slightly disappointed if the Greenwich Village Halloween parade doesn’t have at least a few people dressed up as women in binders.

But aside from Romney’s articulation of an unfortunate sequence of words, binders full of women has the irresistible force of a collective noun. Binders full of women—not conceptually far off from a binderful of women—would be a good candidate for a list of worst collectives in recent grammatical history.

Even left on its own, the word binder has its own range of  associations (law, book manufacture, the digestive tract, and so forth). The OED is as usual an Aladdin’s cave of surprising meanings and usages. I particularly like the lexicographer Eric Partridge’s two senses of binder: first as a boring person and, more elaborately circa 1944:  “A person … who is a grouser or a fault-finder is termed a binder.”  (I risk bring being called a binder in posting this blog.)

Caveat orator. On national television no stumbling phrase goes unobserved or underided. But it was the awful specificity of binders that instantly captured the attention of language-watchers, political pundits, and the rest of us.

Like Albert, those women need out of those binders, quick.



Return to Top