Stupid Question ™
April 1, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of Homer Simpson’s “D’oh!” exclamation, and what’s it a contraction of?
—Deron J. Husak
A: Homer Simpson, the father on the animated Fox TV sitcom “The Simpsons,” invariably utters “D’oh!” when frustrated or angered. Usually, it’s used as a self-reflexive curse in situations in which Homer has been fooled or done something stupid.
“D’oh!” has neatly filled a gap in the English language. It’s used widely, though still self-consciously, as a slang phrase in exactly the same way Homer uses it.
According to Antonia Coffman, an executive consultant on “The Simpsons,” Homer used “D’oh!” from the very beginning in 1987, when “The Simpsons” was a featurette on “The Tracy Ullman Show.”
“D’oh!” is not a contraction. The official spelling, apparently transcribed by the Fox marketing department (though the word isn’t trademarked), includes the apostrophe to emphasize that the “D” is strongly pronounced.
“D’oh!” has never appeared in a “Simpsons” script. In places where it’s used, the scripts have always merely said, “Annoyed Grunt.”
Coffman said that when Dan Castellaneta, the actor who voices Homer, saw his first script, he asked “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening what “Annoyed Grunt” meant. “Whatever you think,” Groening replied.
So, according to Coffman, Castellaneta began using “D’oh!” as his “Annoyed Grunt,” basing it on a similar sound of frustration uttered by James Finlayson, a Scottish comedian who played the villain in many Laurel and Hardy comedy films.
Finlayson was a minor comedian who started out in silent movies as a star but never broke big. Bald and sporting an immense false moustache, he was known for his hyper-exaggerated double-takes.
Finlayson indeed made a “D’oh!”-type sound to express frustration. Basically, it’s “oh!” with a percussive sound at the beginning and a clipped Scottish accent to the “oh!” It’s so close to Homer Simpson’s that it’s uncanny to hear in an old film, even when you’re expecting it.
Finlayson used his “D’oh!” with some frequency, though it apparently wasn’t a trademark gimmick and is ignored by all commentators. Sometimes it was a long “D’ooooh!”, other times a short, Homeric “D’oh!”
You can check out Finlayson for yourself in several Laurel and Hardy comedies available on video. About 20 minutes into “Way Out West” (1937), Finlayson is standing on stairs when his plot to steal a gold mine deed is nearly blown. He reacts with a long “D’ooooh!”
About 30 minutes into “Our Relations” (1936), Finlayson is leaning out a window when he’s hit in the head by a thrown rock. He reacts with a short, familiar “D’oh!”
Now, was this “D’oh!” a personal idiosyncracy of Finlayson’s speech, or is it common Scottish idiom? Let me just check my e-mail for a response from the University of Edinburgh….