25 May 2006

Dr. Pipt's "sovereign simple"?

I received my copy of the spring 2006 Baum Bugle this week. (That's the scholarly journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club, for folks still in the Great Outside World when it comes to Oz.) This issue focuses on the Oz Film Manufacturing Company of the mid-1910s. One article is a compilation of that studio's few reviews, and in Moving Picture World's response to The Patchwork Girl of Oz (released, 1914) a phrase caught the Bugle editor's attention:

He [Dr. Pipt] finds an old recipe in one of his black books setting forth that "a seven-leaved clover, three hairs from a woozy's tail and water from a dark well" are a sovereign simple [sic] for petrification.
That "[sic]" apparently signals the editor's mystification at the preceding phrase, or his belief that some readers wouldn't recognize it. This one didn't.

What is a "sovereign simple," I wondered, and how did this phrase come about? It's certainly lost whatever currency it once had. Google produces only eleven examples of "sovereign simple" in all the web it knows, and nine of those are mere juxtapositions of the words. But the two examples of a unified phrase have the same contextual meaning as in the Patchwork Girl review.

The cover story about FDR in the 2 Jan 1933 issue of Time says:
The prestige of 1929's Man of the Year, Owen D. Young, world financier, friend to Samuel Insull, is still great but even he has produced no sovereign simple for prostrate business.
Another site quotes F. M. Cornford's The Origins of Attic Comedy, published in 1934, as follows:
For if in the Knights of Aristophanes the “egghead” cook exemplifies his role by a highfalutin manner of speech (e.g., “humans” for “people,” “ovines” for “sheep,” “aspersed condiments” for “salt”), he is blood brother to the Learned Doctor of the Canborne mummers’ play, who claims to cure “the hipigo, limpigo, and no go at all” with “a few drops of my helly-cum-pain [i.e., elecampane!],” or to that of the Shipton-under-Wychwood version, who possesses a sovereign simple for “all the rantatoroious boxes [i.e., poxes].”
So a "sovereign simple" is a cure or antidote. But whence does it arise? This is when it's good to have an Oxford English Dictionary in my office--if only it wasn't the one-volume microtext edition. But after a fair amount of eyestrain I find:
  • sovereign = efficacious or potent in a superlative degree
  • simple = medicament composed or concocted of only one constituent
  • "soueraine simple" = phrase appearing in Perimedes the blacke-smith, a 1588 play by Robert Greene
So the movie Dr. Pipt's remedy, containing as it does three ingredients, is not a "sovereign simple" after all. The reviewer was simply using "a highfalutin manner of speech," to borrow words from Cornford. But now if I decide to use the medicinal phrase in some fiction, I'll know not to make the same mistake.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz movie is in the public domain, so it pops up periodically on videotapes and DVDs. Hungry Tiger Press has pressed CDs of the movie's original music.

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