Pompatus (or Pompitus) (//) is a nonce word coined by Steve Miller famously in his 1973 hit single "The Joker". The word is probably a corruption or imagined version of the word "puppetuse", an original coinage of the 14-year-old Vernon Green, and subsequently released in 1954 as the doo-wop song "The Letter" performed by him and The Medallions -- a song which also included another original coinage, "pismotality." In other songs, "Enter Maurice" and "The Conversation," Miller adds the word "epismetology" to "pompatus," one in spoken word, the style of "The Letter," in a likely homage to The Medallions' song. The oddness of the word "pompatus" occasioned some attention and further use, including being used in the title of a movie.
The lyrics of "The Joker" include the quatrain:
- Some people call me the space cowboy.
- Yeah! Some call me the gangster of love.
- Some people call me Maurice,
- 'Cause I speak of the pompatus of love.
Each line references a track on a previous Miller album: "Space Cowboy" on Brave New World (1969); "Gangster of Love" on Sailor (1968); and "Enter Maurice" on Recall the Beginning...A Journey from Eden (1972), which includes the lines:
- My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice
- so I can whisper sweet words of epismetology
- in your ear and speak to you of the pompatus of love.
Although Miller claims he invented the words "epismetology" (a metathesis of the word epistemology) and "pompatus", both are variants of words which Miller most likely heard in a song by Vernon Green called "The Letter," which was recorded by the Los Angeles doo-wop group The Medallions in 1954.
Green's "The Letter" as performed by the Medallions had the lines:
- Oh my darling, let me whisper
- sweet words of pizmotality
- and discuss the puppetutes of love.
Green describes the lyrics as a description of his dream woman. "Pizmotality described words of such secrecy that they could only be spoken to the one you loved", Green explained. He coined the term puppetutes "to mean a secret paper-doll fantasy figure who would be my everything and bear my children".
Pompatus in pop culture
Because of its peculiarity, the word pompatus has secured a niche in 20th century pop culture. Wolfman Jack frequently referenced the phrase and there is a sound clip of him using the line within the song "Clap for the Wolfman" by The Guess Who. The Pompatus of Love, a 1996 film starring Jon Cryer, featured four men discussing a number of assorted topics, including attempts to determine the meaning of the phrase. Jon Cryer was also a writer of the film, and describes finding out the meaning of the phrase during a phone call with Vernon Green in his autobiography "so that happened" in chapter 22, page 217. The line has been mentioned in various television show gags, including The Simpsons and South Park.
Humor columnist Dave Barry frequently refers to the song line as a source of comedic value, particularly in his 1997 book Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. 'Pompatus' is used by Michael Ondaatje in his 2001 book Anil's Ghost. Stephen King uses the word in his 2006 novel Lisey's Story. Tim Dorsey uses the word in his 2010 novel, Gator a-Go-Go. It was the subject of the October 9, 2011 Over the Hedge comic strip.
- Adams, Cecil. 'In Steve Miller's "The Joker," what is "the pompatus of love"?', The Straight Dope, 1996.
- The Pompatus of Love on IMDb
- "Over the Hedge by T Lewis and Michael Fry for Oct 9, 2011". 9 October 2011. Retrieved 6 December 2017 – via GoComics.com.
- "The Joker" lyrics and biography at the Tokezone