Bar­bie has her roots in a Ger­man doll that wasn’t mar­keted to chil­dren

The Woolwich Observer - - LIVING HERE - WEIRD NOTES

Q. Did you or your sis­ter own a Bar­bie doll when you were grow­ing up? What about your daugh­ter? Did you know that Bar­bie had a se­cret for­mer life as a “party girl”? A. Lilli started her life as a comic char­ac­ter in the Ger­man tabloid “Bild,” de­scribed as “an overly sex­ual star­let with re­veal­ing out­fits, ex­ces­sive makeup and hair that prob­a­bly be­longed best in a 1980s rock video,” says Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” web­site. Based on Lilli’s pop­u­lar­ity with read­ers, Bild make a plas­tic ver­sion of her with dif­fer­ent re­move­able out­fits and hair color. The Bild Lilli doll wasn’t for kids, though; rather she was mar­keted for men as a gag gift, given, for ex­am­ple, at a bach­e­lor party. When Bild Lilli’s pop­u­lar­ity reached into the pre-teen set, the man­u­fac­turer made ac­ces­sories, fur­ni­ture, even doll­houses, much to the young owner’s de­light.

When busi­ness­woman Ruth Han­dler and her fam­ily vis­ited Ger­many, she en­coun­tered the Bild Lilli doll that was re­mark­ably like the plas­tic, adult-bod­ied doll that she’d en­vi­sioned a few years ear­lier for her pre-teen daugh­ter Bar­bara. But her hus­band El­liot, co-founder of Mat­tel, had re­jected the idea, “be­liev­ing that par­ents wouldn’t want to pur­chase a cur­va­ceous, overtly sex­ual toy for their kids.” Wrong — as Bild Lilli had clearly demon­strated.

Mat­tel launched its orig­i­nal Bar­bie doll in 1959, sim­i­lar to its Ger­man pre­de­ces­sor but with paler skin and less makeup. Pro­duc­tion of Bild Lilli ended in 1964, as Bar­bie’s pop­u­lar­ity grew. “Ac­cord­ing to the BBC (as of 2006), ‘three Bar­bie dolls are sold ev­ery se­cond.’” Q. Oh, no! You’re on a busi­ness trip, talk­ing on your cell­phone with an im­por­tant client, when you no­tice the phone’s bat­tery is nearly drained. You look around the rail­way sta­tion and see that the few elec­tric wall charg­ers are all in use. Do you have any other op­tions? A. You just might if you’re in Is­tan­bul or one of a few other cities with tran­sit hubs equipped with pub­lic charg­ing sta­tions where you pro­vide your own en­ergy, re­ports “IEEE Spec­trum” mag­a­zine. At one bi­cy­cle­pow­ered charg­ing kiosk at a rail­way sta­tion in Is­tan­bul, “a gen­er­a­tor de­liv­ers charge to your elec­tronic de­vice as you pedal — turn­ing your mus­cle power into the abil­ity to tweet and send emails.” Q. Words can be very ver­sa­tile — and sur­pris­ing — even of­fer­ing mean­ings that show lit­tle con­nec­tion to each other. Can you de­fine any of the wildly dif­fer­ent mean­ings for “columbine,” “gage,” “miz­zle” and “rad­dle”? A. You’re prob­a­bly fa­mil­iar with “columbine” as a kind of plant which, in­verted, re­sem­bles five doves, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” web­site. From the Ital­ian, “colom­bina,” for a small dove, it re­lates to “in­no­cence” or “gen­tle­ness.” But it also can mean “a ser­vant girl” or “a saucy sweet­heart,” af­ter Columbine, a stock char­ac­ter in com­me­dia dell’arte and the mis­tress of Harlequin.

“Gage” can mean “a pledge — some­thing of­fered as a guar­an­tee,” or “an in­stru­ment or cri­te­rion for mea­sur­ing or test­ing,” or even “the thick­ness or size of some­thing,” like the dis­tance between rails of a rail­road track.”

From Mid­dle English “mis­ellen” (to driz­zle) comes “miz­zle,” a fine rain (ear­li­est doc­u­mented use 1439). But it also means “to leave sud­denly” or “to con­fuse.”

“Rad­dle” too has a long his­tory, dat­ing back to 1325. From “rud” (red), it is “a red ocher, used for mark­ing an­i­mals, col­or­ing, etc.” But from the English di­alect “rad­dle” (“a stick in­ter­wo­ven with oth­ers in a fence”) comes an­other mean­ing, “to twist to­gether or in­ter­weave.” And a third def­i­ni­tion is “to beat or cause to have a worn-out ap­pear­ance,” as in Brian Purdy’s “The Rip­per’s Wife” (2014): “Dis­ease rad­dled Mr. Strike’s fine, gen­er­ous mind.”

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