English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

A Melican man

Q: In your “Phoo, pfui, and phooey” post, you reference a 1926 Lorenz Hart lyric from “A Melican Man.” I remember my mother singing such a song back in the ’50s (she was born in 1907). Can you tell me something more about the song?

A: “A Melican Man” was written for the musical Betsy (1926), which was a horrific flop for Rogers and Hart. The only good song in the musical, “Blue Skies,” was written at the last minute—by Irving Berlin.

We doubt that your mother was familiar with “A Melican Man.” Like several other songs, it was cut from the production before the musical’s New York opening. There’s more about the play on the musical database Ovrtur.

You can also find the song in The Complete Lyrics of Lorenz Hart (1995 expanded edition). Unfortunately it’s not online, but it may be at a library near you.

Something to keep in mind as you search for your mother’s song. Another old song, entitled “Melican Man” and set to a foxtrot, was published in the same year (1926) and is credited to Leland A. White, Mary Black, and Lucile Burton.

There was also a 1913 song, “Me Melican Man” (described as “A Pigtail Rag”), by Albert J. Weidt. We can’t tell you anything about the lyrics of those songs.

It may be that the song your mother sang had “Melican man” in the refrain or other lyrics, but not in the title.

The term “Melican man” showed up in the mid-19th century as a caricature of the pidgin spoken by Chinese immigrant laborers in the US.

A song called “Hay Sing, Come From China” was published anonymously in the 1860s and tells of a Chinese immigrant out West who wins the heart of an Irish girl, who later abandons him for a “Melican man”—that is, an “American man.”

The word is repeated several times, as in this verse:

Oh, my name Hay Sing, come from China.
Me likee Irish girl, she likee me.
Me from-a Hong Kong, Melican man come along,
Steal an Irish girl from a poor Chinee.

This song and others in a similar vein were popular on minstrel circuits, which caricatured Asians as well as blacks, and which toured well into the early 20th century. Chinese caricature songs were also popular on the vaudeville circuits.

The original “Hay Sing, Me From China” is anthologized in Songs of the American West (1968), by Richard E. Lingenfelter, Richard A. Dwyer, and David Cohen.  Again, it’s not online but it’s a prominent book and may be in a nearby library.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.