Doh! Homeric origin of Simpson's catchphrase is called into doubt

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It may be a sign of the times that the nation is embroiled in a heated debate about the words of Homer - Simpson, that is, rather than the author of the Iliad.

Yet the utterances of Matt Groening's animated couch potato have earned such currency that they are included not just in the Oxford English Dictionary but the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations.

Homer, of Springfield not Ithaca that is, is best known as the underachieving, beer-slurping father of Bart, and whose claim to profundity extends little further than exclamations of approval such as "mmmm doughnuts" or demanding of his wife: "Marge, are we Jewish?"

His place alongside the likes of Churchill and Shakespeare was secured this week with his much-loved slogan for the slacker generation: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is never try."

But it is his catchphrase "Doh" that has got the nation talking. The word first entered the OED in 2001. Despite its bona fide status as an interjection it did not carry an exclamation mark. Nor did it contain an apostrophe, though the word has been the subject of debate in The Independent since David Lister in his column this month asked how it should be spelt.

Its definition, however, was quite straightforward. "Expressing frustration at the realisation that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish. Also (usu. mildly derogatory): implying that another person has said or done something foolish." However, its provenance was more intriguing. According to the OED's chief editor, John Simpson, (no relation) the first recorded example can be dated back to a BBC radio comedy of the 1940s. During the war, Liverpool's Tommy Handley was one of Britain's biggest stars with his show ITMA - better known as It's That Man Again.

It was not until 1945, in the sixth series of the morale-boosting show, that a script by the writer Ted Kavanagh deployed it for the first time. Diana Morrison, who played Miss Hotchkiss, replied with an exclamation-marked Dooh! to Tommy's jibe over her "whiskers".

It returned again in the eighth series in the same year in the following exchange.

Diana: The man I marry must be affectionate and call me "Dear".

Tom: Oh you're going to be a stag's wife

Diana: Doh!

Tom: Same thing.

As a correspondent, Ron Malings, pointed out on The Independent's letters page, "Kavanagh did not use an apostrophe".

Doh made further cameos in Anthony Buckeridge's 1952 Jennings & Darbishire before disappearing for nearly 40 years until 1989 when it was used in the Beano by a man who is knocked against a bus stop.

It enjoyed a flurry of appearances in the 1990s after being picked up by Homer, although the OED cites evidence as late as 1996 for a usage spelt D'oh!!!

Another letter-writer to this newspaper meanwhile, Ross Grainger, said the latest common spelling - d'oh! - was a joint effort by Groening and the voice of Homer, Dan Castellaneta.