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shameless pleading

See you in the funny papers

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the phrase “See you in the funny pages (papers)”? My girlfriend says her father used to tell her that whenever he left the house. I remember hearing it when I was younger, too. I’m guessing the speaker is saying you’re a joke, but where did it come from? — Andrea.

It’s a long story. Once upon a time there were things called “newspapers,” which were printed on stuff called “paper.” Imagine if you could somehow take just the image on the screen of your computer (iPad, whatever) and fold it up and carry it around and read it anytime you wanted, without needing any batteries or wi-fi. Paper was like that, and “newspapers” were printed every day to tell folks what was going on in the world. But since most people found all that news pretty depressing, the newspapers also had a section, usually near the back, where they printed cartoons and comic strips to cheer folks up so they would buy the paper again the next day. On Sundays, many newspapers even had a whole special section devoted to just comic strips, often printed in color. Both this section and the daily comics pages were known as “the funny pages,” “the funny papers” or “the funny sheet.” A few grumpy, snooty newspapers (e.g., The New York Times) never published funny pages, and to this day they have to pay people to read their newspaper on the internet.

“See you in the funny papers” is a jocular farewell that dates, as far as anyone has been able to determine, to the early years of the 20th century. A question about the phrase was raised back in 2002 on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, and ADS member Douglas Wilson did a bit of research and deduction to come up with what seems like a reasonable explanation of the origin of the phrase, which I will do my best to summarize here.

As Wilson notes, “see you” is a common component in colloquial farewells (e.g., “See you around,” “See you later,” or simply “See you”), used even between people who have no expectation of seeing each other again (as, for example, between a customer and a store clerk). “See you” was a common casual farewell in the US at least by the late 1890s, although it may be somewhat older. Wilson also notes that such “See you” farewells have long been the occasion of humorous elaborations such as “See you in church” (between non-churchgoers) and, as a joking response to “See you later,” “Not if I see you first.”

“See you in the funny papers” almost certainly dates back to the early 1920s because the term “funny papers/pages/sheet” itself apparently didn’t appear in print until roughly that time. A glossary of humor published in 1926 included “See you in the funny sheet,” and William Faulkner also used the phrase in his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury (“Ta-ta see you in the funnypaper”), so it must have been widespread by that time. One reason that “See you in the funny papers” sounds so dated to us today is because “funny papers/pages/sheets” was eventually largely replaced by the term “comics” for that part of the newspaper, a process that probably began in the 1940s and was complete by the 1960s.

The interesting thing about “See you in the funny papers” is that originally it may not have been a very friendly thing to say. Saying “See you in the newspaper” or “See you in jail” when parting, for example, carried the sardonic implication that the person being addressed would next be heard of for committing a crime or attaining some other newsworthy notoriety. Similarly, the original intent of “See you in the funny papers” was probably to imply that the speaker considered the person either so ridiculous or so odd in appearance as to belong in a comic strip (thus making the saying roughly equivalent to “Say hi to the Katzenjammer Kids for me”). By the 1940s, however, “See you in the funny papers” had become so common that it lost whatever hostile edge it had and became a good-natured humorous farewell. If “See you in the funny pages” had any deeper implication after that time, it was that life in general was as silly as the Sunday comics section.

21 comments to See you in the funny papers

  • Tony

    I have always heard that ‘See you in the funny papers’ was started by Walt Kelly, creator of the Pogo Comic strip series. He often included special ‘hellos’ to friends in the strip often by naming the boat, street signs, etc. after his friends.

  • EPR

    I just remember it from “It’s A Wonderful Life”: ‘See you in the funny papers! Hee Haw!’ :)

  • Eloise Rochelle

    When Fiorello LaGuardia was mayor of New York City, from 1934 to 1945, he took to the radio on Sunday mornings and read the funny papers to listeners.

    I still remember how his voice sounded.

    Very New York-y.

  • Steve Proctor

    Phase originated before TV. People looked forward to sunday paper funny pages.
    In my opinion you used the term in a sense that they were looking forward to seeing you again and that they enjoy your company just like looking forward to seeing the funny papers!

  • chris

    Very famous saying…Sayings today have come along way. Kids change the slang all the time.. Very new york indead.

  • [...] papers”. Wow. What person living in the 21st century uses a phrase with an etymology that dates back to the 1930s? Robopocalypse is full of howlers of this sort– especially of the macho action film [...]

  • My mom was born in 1923. She always said that to me when I was saying goodbye, even when I was very young. I say it to my kids too…

  • We used to reply to each other by saying not if I see you first.

  • Jay Benedict

    I “found a wealth of fun reading everything!” Thank You!

  • Anthony

    My late dad, who would be 100 this year, used to use the phrase. When I first used it around some of my friends, near 50, they stared at me like I was from Mars. Yet, it has caught on and we now commonly use “see you in the funny papers” as a way to say goodbye. ????

  • JDnHuntsvilleAL

    “One reason that “See you in the funny papers” sounds so dated to us today is because “funny papers/pages/sheets” was eventually largely replaced by the term “comics” for that part of the newspaper, a process that probably began in the 1940s and was complete by the 1960s.”
    ~
    Uh, I was just coming of age in the 60s, and we always called that section the “funny paper”, or more often just “the funnies” — NEVER the comics. I don’t remember even seeing them referred to as “comics” until recently. To us, “comics” were the bound collections of various funnies sold for a nickle in the local five-and-dime stores.

  • MIKE HARLO

    IS IT HOSTILE?

  • Suzie

    So “fun” to join this discussion. I’m 48 and my father always said goodnight to us by saying “see you in the funny papers”. He also called a station wagon a beach wagon, the refrigerator an ice box, and coca cola, etc. he called tonic not soda. And yes, we called them The Funnies, never the comics.

  • The Info Serf

    So far, I’ve not seen anyone refer to the classic line being uttered in the movie, “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?” by John Goodman’s character, after delivering a sound thrashing to George Clooney’s character, and then stealing his already-stolen car.

  • TM2

    I believe the term originates as a friendly farewell with a bit of wit along the lines of “not if I see you first”. I think the term means “I will see you (or your likeness) when I read the funny papers, as you are a bit of a cartoon-y character”.

  • Gordon Hoffman

    I work at a corporatized hospital that implements procedures that are counter intuitive like ones that one might find in a Dilbert comic; as if the comic was an instructional manual. I am not sure which character might represent me, but I feel like I can see me and my coworkers in the Funny Papers.

  • Barbara Morgan

    “See you in the funnies” means ‘we’ll share a laugh when I catch up with you later’. I’ve used this expression for years and consider it my signature Bye-Bye equivalent.

  • Old Trooper

    I accidentally found my way here when my wife and I used the term “funny papers.” I realized that I must be getting old as I don’t hear that term used anymore. The term, “funny papers” appears to date to circa 1918. We just used some “funny papers” as packaging material for a package to an APO where some “funny papers” may help lighten the mood.

  • John

    What a great explanation! I use this expression a lot (and a lot of other antiquated expressions).
    I’ve been going online to find out the history or origins of all these goofy expressions, because half of them, I don’t know their meaning! (and my younger friends look at me with big question marks on their faces.) I think I learned them from my grandparents… and old cartoons.

    thanks for your post!

  • I always felt that “see you in the funny papers” meant to imply (beyond its obvious meaning) that life is somewhat absurd and to survive it, and more importantly to thrive, one must first understand that very simple, yet vital truth.

    But, maybe, I was projecting :)

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