Tickled under the circumstances

Farewell to a discombobulated old-timer.

Logophiles discombobulated by the death of the British comedian Ken Dodd – described in The Guardian’s obituary as “a force of nature, a whirlwind, an ambulant torrent of surreal invention, physical and verbal, whose Liverpudlian cheek masked the melancholy of an authentic clown” – may be recombobulated to learn the derivation of a word many thought Dodd had invented.

Dodd was known for his wacky words and catchphrases, such as tattyfilarious and plumptious, as well as for the arcane science of tickleology. The art of innuendo was his stock-in-trade: “How tickled I am, under the circumstances. Hello, missus, have you ever been tickled under the circumstances?”

These are vaudeville jokes from the era of Max Miller, regularly reprised by the likes of Max Bygraves, Jimmy Tarbuck, and even Morecombe and Wise: “Have you got the scrolls?” “No, I always walk this way.”

Some sources say discombobulate is slang (originally American) of unknown origin going back well over a century, a fanciful alliteration of discommode, discomfit, discompose, etc. And that was the sense in which Dodd used it.

He was certainly discombobulated in 1989 when the Inland Revenue prosecuted him for tax evasion. Dodd was represented by George Carman QC, who in court famously quipped, “Some accountants are comedians, but comedians are never accountants.” Dodd was acquitted.

For discombobulate, other sources give the Italian verb scombussolare as the origin: meaning to sow disorder and confusion, to upset, to disturb. Il pesce mi ha scombussolato lo stomaco – The fish has upset my stomach.

The adjective scombussolato would then mean “disturbed” or “put out”: discombobulated. A bussola is a compass and perdere la bussola means to lose one’s bearings, hence lose one’s head. If the expression originated in America, Italians in New York may have had something to do with it.

A lot of people have been discombobulated by the death of Ken Dodd. But he would have been hugely combobulated – not to say tickled – to know that his funeral will be held in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, where in 1981 2,000 fans attended a commemorative service for John Lennon.

Hearing the news of Dodd’s death, Paul McCartney tweeted, “Farewell to my fellow Liverpudlian the tattyfilarious Kenn Dodd…We met him on a few occasions as The Beatles and always ended up in tears of laughter. Today’s its tears of sadness as well. See you Doddy.”

Ken Dodd’s rendition of “Tears for Souvenirs” became a No. 1 hit in the UK Singles Chart, the best-selling single of 1965 and the third-biggest selling single of the 1960s. It was the only non-Beatles song in the Top Five. Doddy was certainly not discombobulated.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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