Fruit cup rivalry redux

I once wrote about the appearance of sibling rivalry as a concept in the 1930s even as “parenting” was catching on: the irony that the spread of solutions sometimes causes problems to appear.

So I was curious to read George Howe Colt’s essay about sibling rivalry in today’s New York TimesHe reports the term “sibling rivalry” was “coined in 1930 and popularized by the child psychiatrist David Levy,” which fits the Oxford English Dictionary dating and my graph of Google ngrams (save for a few blips from items that are misdated in the database — like a 1970 Time article listed as published 1927 — or things that don’t really contain the term. Caution is advised when looking at anything in there involving small numbers.)

But as I was reading random snippets about sibling rivalry, I caught a reference to fruit cocktail from an obituary of the writer Erma Bombeck in the Times. I stuck on it because that phrase also was in the Colt essay.

Going back to Bombeck’s 1967 book At Wit’s End (no page number, but this link should take you to the page in Google Books):

It eventually reaches the point where they are measuring their cut of meat with a micrometer to see they are getting their fare share as set down by the Geneva Convention, and being represented by legal counsel to see who gets the fruit cocktail with the lone cherry on top. The rivalry of each day, however, seems to culminate at the dinner table.

And from today’s Colt essay:

Attempting to forestall quarrels, our mother cut portions so nearly identical it would have taken a micrometer to tell them apart. But in vain. Whether lunging for the last hot dog, filching an extra piece of crispy skin from the roast chicken or merely noting who had gotten the most cherries in his fruit cocktail, each of us struggled, constantly, to get our fair share — or, preferably, a lot more.

What are the odds that cut+micrometer and fruit cocktail+cherry would appear in the same paragraph in two different sources on the same subject?

Maybe Bombeck’s writing was so vivid that the image stuck in Colt’s head, or even became part of his family folklore after someone read Bombeck back in the day. Or maybe he was Googling around for the history of sibling rivalry when he wrote the essay.

3 thoughts on “Fruit cup rivalry redux

  1. Well counting to be sure each child got exactly the same number of cherries in fruit cocktail was part of my childhood, so that’s a 50% of the quote that I rather imagine lots of people could come up with. And it’s cherries plural, which is more like my memory that Bombeck’s lone cherry. But pairing it with the micrometer seems unlikely without influence. Still, he put in a bunch of his own examples that are not in Bombeck and left out legal counsel and the Geneva Convention. The general experience of having a parent who was obsessed with treating every child exactly equally certainly fits my own childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Bombeck was echoing the culture on this point, making people laugh because it hit so close to home, not because she was the first to comment on the matter.


  2. The sticking point for me is that I think most people would measure meat by weight, not thickness. That’s what makes it so weird – two people arriving at the same device which is not only obscure, but also inappropriate to the task. Or rather, so plagiarous.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s