Meaning of pismotality

The Letter
written by Vernon Green (top)
recorded by the Medallions (Dootone, 1954)

Darling, darling, oh how I love you, really do
But you just, just won't be true

Darling, I'm writing this letter
Knowing that you may never read it
But each time I write you, darling
I pen what lips can't say
Because I love you, although you're so far away
My words carry meaning that love alone can tell
And always hope and wish you well
Oh my darling, please hear my plea, please

Darling, what is there worse on this earth
Than to be unable to stop loving you
Knowing well that I should
To me, a black day, to me a black night
And to kiss and love, and then have to fight
Oh my darling
Let me whisper sweet words of pismotality
And discuss the puppeteuse of love
And put 'em together, and what've you have
Matrimony, oh my darling, please hear my plea

Oh darling, darling, oh how I love you, really do
But you just, just won't be true

You could say that "pismotality" is a nonsense word. It was coined in 1954 by Vernon Green, composer of above song, now revered as a doo wop classic. What it really means is anyone's guess, but in the context of the song - helped if you are listening to the recording as you read the lyrics above - it certainly sounds like it means something. Anyway, I choose to believe that it means something.

And I'm not the only one, as I have seen footage of Vernon Green singing The Letter in later years with the audience giving a huge cheer as he reaches the magic phrase:
Let me whisper sweet words of pismotality
And discuss the puppeteuse of love
Which suggests that, whatever pismotality means, it's a word we need. It's certainly a word that the young Vernon Green seemd to need.

From its context in the song I take "sweet words of pismotality" to mean words which are solely intended for, and only able to be understood by, the lover. It's a definition seems to be spelt out earlier in the song:
My words carry meaning that love alone can tell
Meaningless or trite to anyone else, those words pour like honey into the lover's understanding ear like some final answer to the mysteries of the universe.

I joined a doo wop messageboard in 2000 and, my given name being taken, appropriated "Pismotality" from Vernon Green's song as my username. I retained it as the name of this blog, set up in 2009 to archive posts from that board, because it seemed a useful shorthand for what I was trying to do both on that board and in posts newly written for this blog: to explain as best I can the importance and significance to me of certain doo wop records. Over time the scope of this scope has been extended to include some other musical forms and other interests - comedy, for example - but I  hope that, whatever the subject, some readers, at least, may extend a lover-like indulgence to my words.

Meaning of pismotality - long version: 

 Pismotality / pizmotality / pismitality /pismatality is a word coined by Vernon Green (above) in the doo wop song The Letter, recorded by his group the Medallions on Dootone in 1954.

It has been my username since around August 2000, when I began posting to a Yahoo group messageboard, Steve's Kewl Doo Wop Shop. I chose it partly because my own name was taken but mostly because Green's recording, and that word in particular, seemed shorthand for the inexplicable nature of doo wop music: gauche and embarrassing yet somehow magical at the same time.

I believe the simplest definition of "pismotality" itself can be found either in the lyric of another song:
Nothings that are meant for my love alone to hear
or, if you prefer to go upmarket, a Wordsworth poem:
But in the lover's ear alone
"Sweet words of pismotality" may seem nonsensical to others but are understood by the lover, able to perceive the intention behind them.

I hope some readers may extend a similar indulgence to this blog.

If you want to find out more about The Letter and its language generally, including the word variously heard as "pompatus", "pompatous", "pulpitudes" or - the one I go for - "puppeteuse", here is an abridged version of an earlier blog post with links to other sites on the subject.

There are many explanations on the net for the word known variously as "puppeteuse," "pompatous, " "pulpitudes," "purportance," etc.

This article by Cecil Adams on the Straight Dope website, prompted by the release of the 1996 movie The Pompatous of Love, is the fullest and most amusing account I can find, especially as the writer's assistant, J.K. Fabian, actually had the chance to speak to Green. There are even more variants of the famed words in the article, but J.K. notes that "Green wasn't much for writing things down, so the spellings are approximate."

The reason I personally favour "puppeteuse" is that I discovered that spelling of it in a separate article on the gangster-of-love website a few years ago. The site seems to have gone but that particular piece is still floating around, often reproduced or quoted when the meaning of The Letter is being debated yet again (and yes, it really does happen quite a lot).

The material in it seems to derive from the article I've linked to, however, as part of Green's interview is quoted verbatim, so maybe the creator of the gangster-of-love site accepted the rest of the information but just decided to go with his own ears.

It's more felicitous, somehow, maybe because it echoes the word "purpose"; "puppetutes" in the Adams article seems more formal, with a possible echo of "statutes" - and surely love is not about being rulebound but purposeful?

Well, it's a theory, anyway - although in revising these notes I have just come across a far more detailed etymological exploration by Mark Liberman on the Language Log website, which quotes at length from an article by Greil Marcus in Los Angeles magazine. Amazingly, "pompatus" is an actual word, according to Marcus, albeit only "a faint line" in the OED: "to act with pomp and splendor--exactly what, in 'The Letter,' a teenage Vernon Green tried to do." But on the "puppeteuse" front Liberman quotes some details I'd forgotten from what I presume to be the vanished website:
Vernon Green, the author of The Letter, says, "You have to remember, I was a very lonely guy at the time. I was only fourteen years old, I had just run away from home, and I walked with crutches." The uneducated but imaginative youth was prone to fantasy, so he just made up the lyrics. 'Pismotality' described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved.

"And it's not pompitous," he emphasizes. "What I said was 'puppetuse', which is a term I coined to mean a secret paper doll fantasy figure."
So this could explain the tone of The Letter: less exhibitionism, perhaps, than a kind of daffy, unanchored desire which is touching as well as being slightly ridiculous; it would certainly fit with the idea of someone given to practising his recitations on the speaking clock.

Marcus then proceeds - or affects? - to hear "pismotality" as "dismortality," and it's hard to tell whether Liberman is running after him to offer support for this theory or making rude gestures behind his back. Either way, Liberman's playful article offers no definitive answers (how could it?) but concludes, by way of promise or threat: "Frank Zappa may be dead and gone, but the linguists are still on the case."

My tip? Adams and Unca Marvy (who associates pompatus with "pulchritudes") are all you really need but please, please mentally substitute the word "puppeteuse" at the relevant moments in both pieces for the full effect. Thank you.

And before you ask, there's no point in checking for an official published version: trying to find the sheet music, Adams' assistant only came up only with that identically titled but unequivocally purposeful ("Ain't got time to take a fast train ...") 60s hit by the Box Tops. Anyway ...

Sadly, Adams ends with the information that Vernon Green died on Christmas Eve 2000.

To close, a description of the song by Greil Marcus from the Los Angeles magazine article mentioned earlier. Appropriately enough, he hears certain words differently:

It is a profoundly stupid record--and also profoundly strange. There's no instrumentation except for a quietly rumbling piano. A few weak voices go "Oh--uh uh uh--oh" behind the lead singer, Vernon Green. He starts off crooning around one word: "Darling." As the backing singers shift into long "ooos," Green stops singing and starts talking. He speaks in a clipped, almost effete voice, not like a man but like a boy trapped in a fantasy he can't even begin to believe. "Darling--I'm writing this letter--knowing that you may never read it." The listener doesn't believe the person the singer is writing to exists.

As the singer goes on, his voice crumbles with puerile emotion. He seems confused, barely able to remember what he's talking about. He sounds like he's underwater, but he's in love with his own voice. "Darling--what is there words--on this earth--to be unable--to stop loving you," he says, swirling. "Oh! my darling!" Then Vernon Green--16, crippled by polio, who would wander the streets of Watts on his crutches, making up songs, trying to find people to sing with him--offered the words that would make him immortal, or at the least unsolvable. "And to kiss, and love--and then have to wait ... Oh! my darling. Let me whisper, sweet words of dismortality--and discuss the pompatus of love. Put it together, and what do you have? Matrimony!"

Dismortality. Pompatus. Matrimony! He sounds like a complete idiot. At the same time he sounds like someone who knows something you never will.

Image above from Unca Marvy's Medallions  page, here. His site has extensive features about many doo wop groups, based on original research. The main page with links to articles is here.