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The Mystery of the Philopena Solv’d

October 19, 2007

With thanks to St. Isidore of Seville, whom you may know as the patron saint of the Internet, and who surely intervened to solve a question that has haunted me for nearly 30 years:

What is a philopena?

I first encountered the philopena in a rarely-read book of Louisa May Alcott’s, An Old-Fashioned Girl.  Fanny, the worldly fourteen-year-old city girl, tries to explain the flowers and poetry she’s gotten from a college man by telling her father, “I can’t help it if the boys send me philopena presents, as they do the other girls.”

Her father isn’t fooled, and Fanny gets into a lot of trouble.  But I was never able to find out just what a philopena present was, or why Fanny might have thought it was an excuse.  After a while, I forgot all about it.

But in looking through old posts on the endless fascinating LanguageHat, I discovered that the philopena makes an appearance in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu!  It was a kind of flirtatious dinner party game.

LanguageHat has this charming quotation from an old Sears, Roebuck catalog, of all places:

“Another and highly reprehensible way of extorting a gift is to have what is called a philopena with a gentleman. This very silly joke is when a young lady, in cracking almonds, chances to find two kernels in one shell; she shares them with a beau; and whichever calls out ‘philopena’ on their next meeting, is entitled to receive a present from the other; and she is to remind him of it till he remembers to comply. . . . There is a great want of delicacy and self-respect in philopenaism, and no lady who has a proper sense of her dignity as a lady will engage in anything of the sort.”

A mystery solved, and in a highly satisfactory way which strengthens my high opinion of Alcott, who is exceptionally accomplished in her use of popular culture in her narratives:  the Gossip Girls have got nothing on her. 

When I get that MacArthur grant, I’m going to produce a series of extraordinarily beautiful annotated texts of popular 19th-century girls’ fiction:  Charlotte Yonge, Pansy, L. M. Alcott, Elizabeth Prentiss . . . no one will buy them, but they’ll exist, and no-one else will ever have to wonder what a philopena was, or what the initials CSLC stand for*, or what a Christian Endeavor badge looked like. 

*Chatauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. Allan permalink
    January 18, 2009 5:27 pm

    ” Boys , I move that he keeps still and lets this human philopena snip you out a speech.”Mark Twain writes in “Pudd’nhead Wilson”…went looking for the meaning and wondering why it was an insult and found this spot …hello.

  2. Eric Stott permalink
    February 4, 2009 8:46 am

    I have a lovely ornate sterling silver pocket knife with “Philo-Pena” engraved on the blade- I suspect some young lady was very fortunate.

    • melyndahuskey permalink*
      February 5, 2009 3:03 pm

      What a wonderful thing! Do you have any pictures of it?

  3. Margaret Hill permalink
    February 9, 2009 7:19 am

    Philopena shows up in Anne of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery. A doctor asks “Does anybody ever eat philopenas now.”. After cracking a twin almond.

  4. Steph permalink
    February 15, 2009 12:54 pm

    I found the same Twain insult, and still do not understand it.

  5. Iaman permalink
    September 3, 2009 10:02 am

    I’m guessing that the term philopena is used for the two kernels in one nutshell as well as the “game” that’s “played” by sharing the two kernels. That’d mean that in _Pudd’nhead_Wilson_, the twins are being compared with nuts… doesn’t seem as if it’s the biggest insult ever, but I guess it was more about being insulted, not how major the insult itself.

    If anyone else has any better insight, please share!

  6. Eric Stott permalink
    September 3, 2009 10:10 am

    It does conjure up the image (surely unintended) of the twins compressed in the womb like two kernels in a nutshell..

  7. arntzville permalink
    October 9, 2009 8:43 am

    In the Twain book, the newly-arrived Italian twins have been brought to a rum “rally” organized to counter an anti-rum movement in the town. They are brought up on stage, and each presented with a glass of rum. One twin does not drink his, as it turns out that he is a teetotaler (does not drink alcohol). The other does drink his. Therefore they are observed by Tom Driscoll to be a “human philopena” because one supports the cause and one does not, which is akin to two people (i.e. the rum and anti-rum factions) splitting the twin kernels inside a nutshell.

    That still doesn’t explain why Luigi becomes so incensed, though. Perhaps it is simply the indignity of being mocked in such a way.

  8. Chey permalink
    February 10, 2010 1:57 am

    This was super helpful I was just reading pudd’nhead for a class and was driven crazy by not undestanding it

  9. February 28, 2010 12:01 pm

    What fun! I was just reading Old Fashioned Girl for the umpteenth time and was moved to google philopena . This is the first time I’ve read OFG since becoming used to the joys of Mr. Google.

    I’ll be looking forward to those beautiful annotated texts …

  10. Mumsy permalink
    June 18, 2010 7:45 am

    After years wondering about this, I suddenly decided to google this today – the explanation is delightful. I will absolutely buy your annotated texts!

  11. damsonjammer permalink
    September 1, 2010 3:42 pm

    I think the insult taken in the Twain stems from the connotation of a Philopena as a forfeit/undesirable gift, albeit also apposite because two twins are being compared to a “twin” nut etc.

  12. April 19, 2011 11:16 pm

    Just ran into the Twain reference tonight. The discussion here has helped! 🙂

  13. john woodford permalink
    May 2, 2011 3:27 pm

    In “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” Tom witticism is aimed at the hotter-blooded of the twin Italians, and, as Twain tells it: “Luigi’s southern blood leaps to the boiling point.” So it’s clear that any provocation might serve. Being worldly travelers, the twins could well have got the philopena/twin-nut reference, but whether they do or not is neither here nor there. The point is, Tom has riled them.

  14. Jeffry house permalink
    October 15, 2011 3:36 pm

    A philopena is also referred to in the short novel by Fontaine, Trials and Tribulations, which can be read in full at various websites such as Bartleby, especially Chapter ten has references to a philopena.

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  15. Steven Holmes permalink
    November 1, 2012 10:16 pm

    This is why, despite its sometimes annoying ubiquity, I love the internet. When I first read Twain’s novel more than 30 years ago, research of such trivial matters was far too time consuming to make it worthwhile. During my rereading tonight, answering this nagging question was a simple matter of a momentary pause in my reading. Thanks to all who contributed. (Now back to Mr. Wilson!)

  16. Steve Allen permalink
    November 14, 2013 1:08 am

    In Search of Lost Time spells it thus, ‘philippina’

  17. Nancy Wilson permalink
    January 7, 2015 2:36 pm

    This solves a mystery that’s been in my mind since the 1970s. A family in Louisiana had a charming teacup with the word “Philapoena” painted on it, and the story was that in the late 1850s a young man had given it to his mother-in-law. It made no sense to us, but now I guess it does — a family game, an amusing challenge, and there you are. The young man had a store on the main street of town, so probably he had easy access to various kinds of chinaware. Thank you for posting this!

  18. Melissa permalink
    August 25, 2015 10:32 pm

    Thank you! I to am reading An Old Fashioned Girl right now and found this – oh so many years later – extremely helpful! Having problems figuring out several other references this book offers. Will keep looking for those but ever so thankful for this explanation of philopena present.

  19. October 1, 2015 10:08 am

    Found this word in a translated story from Turkey. thanks for explaining. The story is here:

  20. April 9, 2016 7:55 pm

    Wow! I always assumed “philopena” meant “flowers.” The reference in that book that, to this day, drives me insane is to “the German” or “a German.” What is “a German”? I recall that it’s mentioned twice, and Polly doesn’t get what’s so great about it either time. On one occasion it’s referred to as something that they do at a party, but Polly isn’t part of it and it bores her, and on another occasion Fanny is intently interested in a man telling her the details of a recent German. There is no possible way to Google this, but clearly they’re not talking about a person from Germany.

    • April 9, 2016 9:31 pm

      The German was a dance! like a cotillion, with figures danced by very well-practiced couples. There were gifts and flowers distributed as part of the dancing.

      • April 10, 2016 3:03 pm

        Thank you. My childhood is complete now 🙂 I have an old copy of this book, which belonged to my grandmother. It was her favorite when she was little and I’ve probably read it 100 times.

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    • July 10, 2016 8:46 am

      I am from a small town in the South (of the US). For most of the 20th century, it held a German. It was a large, formal dance attended by the type of (“quality”) white people that would be involved in debutante balls and such. They came from all over the eastern part of my home state and constituted such a crowd that the only buildings large enough to hold so many were the cavernous, decidedly inelegant (but empty at that time of the year) tobacco warehouses. It was an incongruous site to see huge flocks of formally attired revelers celebrating in a dingy tobacco warehouse through the night at the June German. Big bands from the era would play until almost dawn to people who had never had dirt under their fingernails in a huge industrial space whose raison d’etre was to be filled in August with thousands of tons of the flue-cured tobacco the reveler’s tenants and sharecroppers raised and with hundreds of dirty, sweaty bib-overalled farmers and shirt-sleeved tobacco auctioneers trying to eek out a meager living — virtually all of whom had never been to any formal event in their lives. I do not know if Germans were a distinctively southern phenomenon, but ours sure was. Ours died out in the 60s, but there were attempts to revive it throughout the rest of the century. Probably at least a dozen more Germans were held even after the original June German died.

  21. February 23, 2017 8:46 am

    Bless Google! I am transcribing a one-year diary from 1884, and the entry for January 1st includes this sentence: “Jane Ann Blauvelt called & presented me with a fine napkin ring for a philopena present.” The writer of the diary was 29 years old and single, though he was seeing a young woman whom he married later that same year. This was in Rockland County, New York, and I wonder how popular the custom was in this area. The young man was descended from early Dutch settlers to the area, not German. I am delighted to have an explanation.

  22. Regina Haring permalink
    June 1, 2017 9:34 pm

    I am in the process of transcribing a diary for the year 1884, and the entry on January 1 says “Jane Ann Blauvelt called and presented me with a fine napkin ring for a philopena present”. Regina Haring

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  23. Therese Zimmerman permalink
    October 23, 2017 9:46 am

    Also seen in “Aunt Crete’s Emancipation” by Grace Livingston Hill. There, a philopena present is expected when two people say the same thing simultaneously, and the first to claim the philopena can request a present from the other. A form of flirtation.

  24. Melody Patula permalink
    November 25, 2017 11:52 am

    Thank you for this very interesting explanation of the word philopena. It was much better than the others online. I would buy your annotated texts!

  25. Janee Barrett permalink
    January 26, 2018 5:38 pm

    Unbelievable! I actually Live that particular book – An Old Fashioned Girl – by the wonderful Louisa May Alcott. It is actually my favorite of her books.
    So I found your article since I am trying to figure out what a philopena present is. The WORD is so strange to me. Kismet

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