For reasons not relevant to this post, someone in a recent online discussion brought up a line by Allan (“Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah”) Sherman, the bard of Jewish postwar suburban life. In his 1962 song “Sarah Jackman,” an imagined telephone conversation to the tune of “Frère Jacques,” one of the call-and-response couplets goes, “How’s her daughter Rita?”/“A regular Lolita.”
It reminded me of a question I’ve pondered for years: How and why did “a regular X,” where X is a person famous for specific characteristics, become a standard formulation in Jewish-American lingo? I decided to make like a regular Samuel Johnson or William Safire and apply myself to discovering the answer. My first finding was surprising: The phrasing, which I would rhetorically categorize as a kind of simile, is definitely not of Jewish or Yiddish origin. The Oxford English Dictionary has a pertinent definition for regular: “As an intensifier: complete, absolute, utter, veritable.” The first quotation is from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740): “He is a regular Piece of Clock-work.” In none of the citations, however, is regular is followed by a proper name.
I then searched Google Ngram Viewer for some popular variations.
Homing in on the oldest, “a regular Romeo,” I found it first appearing in very non-Jewish American sources. In a 1903 short story in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, a character named Jones is speaking: “Now, with such a sweetheart I’d be a regular Romeo. She must be fabulously wealthy too! Rich, beautiful, and charming — by Jove, North, you’re in luck! I imagine there will be some pleasant people at her house party.” And this is a line from a character named Squire in a 1913 play called The Bachelor’s Elopement, by William and Josephine Giles: “Hear him, hear him, why, he is a regular Romeo. Nan can’t resist that, if he keeps it up she will be dead in love with him.”
But then the Jewish association arrives mid-century. In addition to the Allan Sherman song, there are these three quotes from novels, each with one or more Yiddish words in italics:
- “His father performed his morning ritual — pressing into Sam’s outstretched palm two quarters, his daily allowance to help his son through the strange maze of the goyishe college. ‘Thanks, papa,’ he said cheerfully. ‘You’re a regular Rockefeller.’” -- Gerald Green, The Last Angry Man, 1956,
- “So all right, that’s worth one session. You want I should tell you about the momzer. He thinks he’s some hot-shot detective, a regular James Bond, but, if you ask me, he don’t know his ... excuse the expression ... ass from a hole in the ground.” -- Ronald Levitsky, The Wisdom of Serpents, 1992.
- “‘She bats her eyes at you and suddenly you’re a regular Romeo. Well, I’m no Juliet.’ ‘Let me be the judge,’ he said. His response was oddly comforting. ‘You’re a schmo. Not a Romeo.’ He laughed. ‘A regular rhymer. You want my job. The first girl tumler in the Catskills.’” -- Funny Boys, Warren Adler, 2008.
And my friend Don Lessem turned up this joke from Leo Rosten’s The New Joys of Yiddish (2001):
The shadkhn [matchmaker] was impressing the young woman with the boundless virtues of a female and ended: “And to look at, she’s a regular picture!” The young man could not wait for his blind date. But when he accosted the shadkhn the next day, his voice was frosty: “Her eyes are crossed, her nose is crooked, and when she smiles one side of her mouth goes down—” “Just a minute,” interrupted the shadkhn. “Is it my fault you don’t like Picasso?”
The question remains. How did “a regular ...” become Jewish? I asked another friend, Andy Cassel, a student of Yiddish, and he said none of the Yiddish words that translate as regular fit this sense. He went on: “In Yiddish you’d say that someone was ‘an emeser Romeo’ — emeser stems from the Hebrew word emet meaning ‘truth,’ which would more naturally (or at least less idiomatically) translate into ‘a real or genuine Romeo’” Andy went on to point out that in Jewish use, the expression is usually less glorifying than deflating. That is, calling someone “a regular Rockefeller” suggests not that he is fabulously wealthy but rather that he acts like it. He concluded, “I’m leaning toward the idea that it existed pre-Yiddish immigration, and just acquired that connotation because of Jews’ affinity for irony and pretense-puncturing.” What’s not to like about that explanation?
Thinking about “a regular X” led me to ponder another use of this productive adjective -- in reference to caffeinated beverages. I Googled “regular coffee” and found, as I suspected, that in New England this means with cream and sugar. But I was surprised to find a recent online article called “How to Order Coffee Like a New Yorker” claim that “regular” means the same in New York City. I have ordered a lot of what we call “cawfee” in the city, especially in the 1970s (I moved out in 1980 but return for frequent visits), and always have had the impression that “regular” means coffee with milk, preferably poured from a quart of Dellwood, served in a cardboard cup with a picture of the Acropolis on the side, and accompanied by a buttered roll. Sugar had to be specified separately.
A 2003 New York Times “Metropolitan Diary” item confirmed my sense. A Midwestern-born woman recalled that shortly after her arrival in Manhattan in 1975, she ordered coffee at a donut shop.
''Regular?’' asked the burly counter clerk.
I told him yes, at which point he filled a quarter of the cup with half-and-half.
''Oh,’' I said. ''I would like black coffee.’'
He turned. I wilted. ''You want regular coffee or you want black coffee?’' he asked.
''I want regular black coffee,’' I said. ''Please. Not decaffeinated.’'
''Who said anything about decaf?’' he asked.
It must have been my youth or my dumbfounded look that softened the man, and he explained that coffee in New York came two ways: black and regular, which meant with cream.
I threw the question out on Facebook and most of the old-timers also felt that back in the day, “regular” didn’t include sugar. Peter Cherches seemed to have studied the matter in the greatest depth:
In Manhattan I remember regular being milk to a medium tan color, the continuum being black-dark-regular-light-extra light, sugar specified separately. Then at some point I had to start saying “regular no sugar” because places no longer were reliable. I was also told that a Brooklyn regular always had milk and sugar. And I’d say the ‘80s is about the time it changed in Manhattan.
The arrival of skinny lattes and decaf mochaccinos, and the rise of decaf, threw the meaning of “regular” coffee up for grabs. In 1994, Safire himself wrote, “‘regular’ means ‘black’ in Chicago, ‘with milk’ in Boston, ‘with milk and sugar’ in Rhode Island and just about anything in New York.” Four years after that, this exchange took place on a Law and Order episode:
Coffee Shop Clerk: ... how about a free large latte on the house?
Det. Lennie Briscoe [Jerry Orbach]: Maybe for the kid here, but I’d like a regular coffee.
Clerk: OK, how would you like it?
Briscoe: Uh, regular?