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Stripteasing, insect style

Creepy-crawlies and their shrimplike cousins have exoskeletons which is basically a skeleton on the outside of their bodies that protects them from squashing, scraping, attack by microbes, and water loss. This tough, sturdy shell works as a terrific shield from the elements, but it is a real dilemma as the critter grows because it simply doesn't stretch. One entomologist writes:

Before an insect grows a new exoskeleton, it sheds the old one, a process called molting. Most people are familiar with the shed skins of insects. For instance, what youngster hasn’t gathered the conspicuous shells of cicadas? When the immature cicada nymph emerges from its underground home, it immediately molts to the winged adult stage. The old exoskeleton can be fond fastened to a tree, shrub, or fence post. Aphids also molt, and sometimes the only evidence of these pest insects on a plant will be hundreds of white ghost-like skins.

Scientists have been enthralled with insects that molt and poets have perceived the enchantment of them shedding their shells. In The Two Voices, Tennyson paints a picture of a dragonfly molting:

An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk; from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.

Not only did the Greeks from ancient times know about the molting process they even had a word to describe it ecdysis (eck DEE sis) meaning "casting or stripping off," and while the no-nonsense nature of an insect molting might not hold the same magnetism to most as the dance of a strip teaser, the result is the same; both the insect and the ecdysiast end up removing their outer clothing.

A Red Hot Rose is a thing with feathers

The first known ecdysiast was probably Salome when she performed a striptease for Herod. Today’s performers are usually given money, but Salome’s mother had her ask for a silver platter accompanied by the head of John the Baptist. However, before erotic entertainers were called ecdysiasts there was burlesque a form of entertainment that arose in France. At the end of the comic sketches a woman slowly removed her clothes in a vain search for a flea crawling on her body. By the time it arrived in America in the 1870’s burlesque had acquired its modern sense of a "variety show featuring striptease" Strip-tease itself is first recorded 1936, though strip and tease were both used in this sense in late 1920s.

One of the most influential critics of the 1920s and 1930s was H.L. Mencken. He created the expression Bible Belt to refer to the ultra conservative South and while bootleggers reached auspicious heights as booticians, the middle class was reduced to the booboisie. So in 1940 it was a Baltimore stripper that asked him to come up with a unique word to raise the tenor of her profession. Georgia Sothern wrote to Meneken, "I am a practitioner of the art of strip-teasing...there has been a great deal of...criticism leveled against my profession. Most of it...arises from the unfortunate word strip-teasing, which creates the wrong connotation...if you could coin a new and more palatable word to describe this art, I and my colleagues would have easier going. I hope...(you) can find time to help the...members of my profession."

Ms Sothern was already a phenomenon all her own. Ann Corio describes her performances in the book This was Burlesque(1968):

Georgia stripped and teased, but that was only a minor part of her act. Her music Hold That Tiger was played by the orchestra at full blast… and Georgia came on stage in full flight ... and she'd work up momentum. Faster and faster the music would roar, and Georgia would be at the front of the stage, one hand cascading her long red hair over her face, the other outstretched to keep her balance as her hips blurred back and forth at a fantastic tempo...The mere sight of this red hot red-headed temptress tossing her hips in fantastic abandon to the wild music of the band caught up everybody in its spell…By the time she was finished, the whole theatre seemed to explode in a sigh. The audience was almost as exhausted watching as Georgia was performing.

Mencken replied to Ms Sothern, "I sympathize with you in your affliction. It might be a good idea to relate strip-teasing in some way to the...zoological phenomenon of molting,...which is ecdysis. This word produces...ecdysiast."

Charmed by his reply Georgia Sothern the stripper became Georgia Sothern the ecdysiast and she promoted both the profession, as well as the word. In almost no time at all a union arose called the Society of Ecdysiasts. Nevertheless, it was more than guns and roses for the Empress of Ecdysiasts, Gypsie Rose Lee who was not enamored at all with the new word to describe her profession. In a May interview of that same year, she took aim at Mencken and fired off an angry reply, "Ecdysiast, he calls me! Why, the man...has been reading books! Dictionaries! We don't wear feathers and molt them off...What does he know about stripping?" Despite her scathing review the humorous term continues today.


Chrysti the Wordsmith:

Gypsy Rose Lee on HL Mencken:

Henry Louis "H. L." Mencken:
www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr& GRid=706&pt=Henry%20'H.%20L.'%20Mencken


Online Etymology Dictionary:

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