Q: I was reading the Dickens novel Hard Times recently and came across the expression “pleased as Punch.” Why is there a capital letter in “Punch” and where does the phrase come from?
A: The “Punch” in “pleased as Punch” (as well as “proud as Punch”) refers to the comic villain of the Punch and Judy puppet shows popular in Britain since the mid-1600s, though in decline in recent years.
The plots vary from show to show, but Punch typically bumps off folks left and right – his wife (Judy), his child, a policeman, even the hangman. Along the way he takes great pleasure and pride in each evil deed, hence those expressions.
Punch is a shortened version of Punchinello, which is an Anglicized version of Polichinello, a stock character in 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte. Samuel Pepys, in his 17th-century diary, reports seeing a play at King’s Theatre, then going “to Polichinello, and there had three times more sport than at the play.”
The first published reference for “pleased as Punch” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the poet William Gifford’s satirical writings (1797): “Oh! how my fingers itch to pull thy nose! / As pleased as Punch, I’d hold it in my gripe.”
The earliest citation for “proud as Punch” is in the Dickens novel David Copperfield (1850): “I am as proud as Punch to think that I once had the honor of being connected with your family.”
All of the OED’s 19th-century references cap the “P” in “Punch.” But some 20th-century citations lowercase it, as in this one from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928): “She wanted me, and made no bones about it. And I was as pleased as punch.”
Nowadays, you can find both capped and lowercase versions of “pleased as punch.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) caps it, but this is a matter of style. It’s your pleasure.
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