Why we say: ‘pleased as punch’

Who is this Punch to whom we insist on comparing our own happiness? And why are they so pleased with themselves? Warning: the answer may make you reluctant to declare yourself ‘pleased as punch’ ever again...

Why we say: ‘pleased as punch’

The Punch in question is the main character of the classic British seaside puppet farce – the grotesque and sadistic serial killer who dispatches everyone he meets with a giant stick while screeching: “That’s the way to do it!”

Advertisement

The story of Punch and Judy, such as it is, changes depending on the puppeteer – or ‘Professor’. Over the centuries, Punch’s victims have included his wife, Judy, his own infant child, a policeman, a crocodile, a doctor, a hangman, a skeleton, Death and even the Devil.

As the hook-nosed, squeaky-voiced Punch struts about his red-and-white puppet booth, he is clearly satisfied with his evil deeds – hence the expression.

Though the Punch and Judy show is most closely associated with the Victorian seaside, the male character originated in the 16th-century Italian theatre movement commedia dell’arte, in which he was named Pulcinella – or, in English, Punchinello.

Advertisement

The first recorded performance of such a show in England was staged in the 1660s, when celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys described it as being “very pretty”.