“Easy Peasy,” Updated

Since I first wrote about the expression, I’ve learned that “easy peasy” and its origins are shrouded in mystery, or, at least, uncertainty. Start with most British people’s Mandela effect notion that it came from an advertising slogan for Sqezy [sic] dish-washing liquid, “Easy Peasy, Lemon Sqezy.” It is flat-out wrong. The language historian Barry Popik and Pascal Tréguer, who runs the WordHistories.net blog, have both established that there was never such a slogan. Rather, from 1957 until 1962, it was, “It’s Easy With Sqezy.”

A 1957 advert.

Shortly after that, the brand was discontinued. However, a commenter on my 2012 post noted that Star Brands, which had (temporarily) reintroduced Sqezy, had a message on its website which bought into the folk/faux/fake etymology: “From its origins in 1958 when Sqezy was launched as the world’s first washing up liquid in a plastic squeezy bottle, we’ve now brought it bang up to date. Although when you consider that 99.9% of people can complete the line ‘Easy peasy ..’ you’d hardly believe that it had ever been away!”

In fact, the first documented (by Tréguer) instance of the full phrase is in a 1983 article in The Guardian: “Chap comes in, sits down, says, ’I want to be a marine biologist.’ Easy peezy lemon squeezy.”

Another odd thing about the short version of the phrase is its nationality. Ngram Viewer confirms it’s a NOOB (and that widespread use began in the late ‘70s):

Yet two of the three early uses of it cited by the OED come from American sources. The first is very early and not American: in a 1923 article about traditional mummers’ plays, there is a reference to “The Berkshire Doctor’s cure of the ‘easy-peasy, palsy, and the gout.’” In the 1940 American film Long Voyage Home, the character played by John Wayne says, “Easy-peasy. Take it easy, Drisc!” And a 1953 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer noted, “There’s a brief air travelogue of highlights of a jet trip from London to Cairo… The flight is such an easy-peasy affair for the air travellers, they seem to be motionless in a fantastic and lovely, sun-drenched cloudland.”

My guess would be that in all three cases, the phrase was used not because it was in circulation but because the rhyme came easily to the tongue. The same is true of the other popular variant, “Easy peasy, Japanesey,” which Popik has spotted in 1982 (that is, a year earlier than the “Lemon Sqezy/Squeezy” version). The character played by James Whitmore uses the phrase in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, which is set decades earlier and is therefore anachronistic.

“Easy peasy” has been used in the New York Times sixty-five times from its first appearance, in 2001, through 2021. That includes a 2012 article about a New York City burglar: “The following morning, he was awakened by police officers in his bedroom. One of them said, ‘Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy,’ first handcuffing, then dressing” him. The comma after “Easy” is the doing of the Times reporter and should not be there.

While the phrase is popular here, it hasn’t yet become a cliché and ripe for parody. It has in Britain, where in the 2009 satire In the Loop (Nancy Friedman has pointed out), a character says, “Difficult difficult lemon difficult.”

11 thoughts on ““Easy Peasy,” Updated

  1. The quotation about the Berkshire Doctor suggests that “the easy-peasy” was a medical diagnosis. The Theater Arts magazine, from where this quotation comes from, says “it might have been intended nonsense, but for the exactness of the other conditions mentioned”. I wonder if any medical historian could help?

  2. Interesting, as I would have never considered this a NOOB. I remember hearing it from Americans all my life. (My memory is increasingly faulty, though.) That said, it is telling that my (British) wife says this WAY more than anyone else I know…

  3. That early source, the ‘1983 article in The Guardian’ matches my own recollection of first hearing ‘easy peasy’ in the late 1970s, after I moved from the Midlands to London. With the full citrus-inflected silliness cropping up a few years later.

    But I’m sceptical about ‘the rhyme coming easily to the tongue’ suggestion – hundreds of rhymes do (witness rhyming slang) – so why should ‘easy peasy’ pop in and out of existence in the US, where there is no strong rhyming tradition?

    As ‘easy peasy’ doesn’t sound distinctively British, it could be a remnant of the dozens of American expressions taken up by Brits from the 1930s to the 1950s, nearly all having vanished by around 1970. If still recognised they were outmoded, the ‘with it’ having become ‘without it’, daddy-o. ‘Cool/uncool, dude’ for younger readers.

    Dozens of US expressions, including a few 1960s adoptions (groovy, freaky) were infra dig by the early 1970s, they no longer ‘sent’ Brits. They were avoided, along with oddities like ‘It’s Trad Dad!’ –
    expressions Brits had invented to try to sound hep, plugged in, turned on, tuned in, and, well, American.

    When I imagine ‘easy peasy’ in different accents, I keep coming back to the west of Scotland, where there was a particular fondness for cowboy film escapism, country music (and rockabilly?), dressing up (string ties); and American expressions too, as far as I know.

    By the by Ben, this British fan of yours thought your ‘Mandela effect’ for ‘false memories’ a bit tokenistic (once I’d looked the effect up). Is the phrase widely understood in the US? I prefer clarity to style when discussing a foggy subject; ‘GDR effect’ would have given me a clue to the meaning, where Mandela didn’t. Though I should think 95% of Brits would be foxed by either.

    Mandela – a name recognised by many, but the ‘effect’ could not be inferred. GDR – recognised by few, but those reading it as ‘the former East Germany’ would mostly guess the effect referred to.

    1. Well, this Brit thought that “Mandela effect” was widely known. First heard it years ago.

      Now I’m wondering if there is a name for the opposite effect, the one where suddenly it goes around the internet that X has just died only it turns out the death had actually occurred some time ago and had been widely reported at the time. I remember a question on Only Connect a few years ago where the connection was that the people mentioned had “died” twice. I think Leslie Nielsen and Tony Hart had been two of the names in the question.

      1. That’s interesting Paul. It’s hard to see how anyone aware of Mandela’s existence could have failed to be aware of his existence continuing, at least till he stepped down from public life 20 years ago.

        The missus hadn’t heard of ‘Mandela effect’, and she’s well read but only recognises common Americanisms (I just tested her with ‘rube’ and her blank look didn’t disappoint me). I wonder if there’s an American equivalent of Only Connect.

    2. David, on my reference to Mandela Effect–one of the (few?) ways online writing has it over offline writing is the ability to link. If I were writing for print, I would probably not throw “Mandela Effect” in without a definition or at least a clue to what it means. But online, I could include a link so anybody curious can immediately find out. And of course, even if I hadn’t, anyone reading online has access to Google.

      Now, tell me what GDR effect means?

      1. Yes, I’ve never heard of the GDR effect (and Google doesn’t seem to help.

        By the way, the link in the original post doesn’t work for me.

      2. That’s fair enough, Ben. Force of habit, I searched Mandela Effect by hand, not registering that the highlight meant a link.

        I got GDR effect from German (DDR Wirkung). The DDR and its integration into the German Federal Republic is an extensively documented saga of false memories and forgetfulness (Vergesslichkeit) of every kind, and that’s despite e.g. the destruction of DDR documents by the ton, starting the moment the Berlin Wall fell.

        I recommend Stasiland by Australian German-speaker Anna Funder as an introduction. Very readable, mainly personal (female) perspectives, but she touches on a few systemic aspects (there are more!).

        Germany cannot be understood (e.g. energy-surrender to Russia) without awareness of its culture of forgetfulness as well as of guilt. For example, the way the 1933-45 Nazi Zeit and World War Two are remembered enables forgetfulness about World War One. That’s despite WW1 being the first experience that truly unified Germans.

        An East Berlin PhD student, researching the Stasi secret police a few years after their demise, looked herself up in their files to see if she’d been informed on. Her name and address were there alright; but as an informer! Twice as a teenager she had reported a neighbour/fellow student/relation. Try as she might, she could not remember doing so.

        As false memories and forgetfulness have become more relevant across the US and UK, supposedly rational Germany is a useful reminder that we are crazy too, we just can’t see it from the inside!

      3. The danger in this sort of confusion in the collective memory is that it will be exploited by the unscrupulous.

  4. In 1956 lemon juice in a plastic lemon was introduced branded as “JIF Lemon”. Is that a possible source?

  5. I’ll add that the “lemon craze” in washing-up liquid and other cleaning products didn’t begin until about 1970. In the days of Sqezy, no-one would have thought to add lemon juice or even lemon scent to the product.

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