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Why do we call dull, old-fashioned or banal things corny? As in corny movie scenes or corny jokes; not, vegetable or corn related characteristics.

This blog article I found on Google suggests it originated in old seed catalogs.

Yet etymonline doesn't mention this theory, and compares it to "corn-fed" as an epithet:

perhaps originally "something appealing to country folk" (corn-fed in the same sense is attested from 1929).

So what's the real story behind "corny?"

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  • Shortened version of the derogatory use of corn pone. Jul 26, 2020 at 19:05
  • All the meanings point to urban jokes at rural expense - old-fashioned, worn-out, isolated, ineffective. Feb 8, 2023 at 17:54

4 Answers 4

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Its meaning as old-fashioned is from the 30's and appears to come from jazz:

Corny:

  • The adjective “corny” has a shorter history. It’s been a term of derision only since the 1930s, when something that was “corny” or “cornfed” or “on the cob” was rustic, countrified, old-fashioned, or behind the times – and hence trite or hackneyed.

  • It first was used by jazz musicians, who called a style of playing “corny” if it was outmoded or worn out. Here’s the OED‘s first citation, from 1932: “The ‘bounce’ of the brass section … has degenerated into a definitely ‘corny’ and staccato style of playing.” (Imagine a rube fresh from the cornfields trying to make a splash in the big city and you’ll get the idea.)

(grammarphobia.com)

The Wold Detective, besides the more generally accepted origin from jazz, offers another possible etymology from old 'seeds catalogues'.

  • Some of the earliest documented uses of "corny" were among jazz musicians in the late 1920s, who used the term to mean an old-fashioned or trite style of jazz, likening it to music that might be heard in the boondocks, perhaps at a square dance. Derogatory references to rural inhabitants, culture and customs as being crude and unsophisticated were nothing new at the time, of course, and persist to this day in such terms as "hick" and "rube" (short for Henry and Reuben, once considered typical "country" names), as well as such slurs as "hayseed." For a jazz musician whose status depended on constantly forging new styles of music, nothing was more deadly than being considered "corny," and by the 1930s the term had percolated into general usage in the sense of "trite or sentimental."

  • Another possible origin of "corny" casts rural folk in a considerably better light. Seed catalogs in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is said, often contained humorous stories and jokes interspersed among the product listings. As the jokes tended to be unsophisticated and obvious, the genre came to be known among farmers as "corn jokes," or, eventually, simply "corny."

  • It is possible, of course, that both theories are true. Perhaps it was farmers who first came up with "corny," only to have the term turned against them by urban sophisticates.

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  • 1
    "I'm as corny as Kansas in August, I'm as normal as blueberry pie."
    – Tom Au
    Nov 10, 2015 at 18:33
  • 3
    @TomAu - But that was playing a word game with the term.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 26, 2017 at 21:49
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Here's a theory:

1946 M. Sandoz in American Speech (American Dialect Society) 21 234/1 "The seed catalog [from c 1890 to 1910]..featured a great variety of seed corn..interspersed with short jokes and riddles, sometimes even cartoons. The jokes were all time-worn and over-obvious and were called corn catalog jokes or corn jokes, and any quip or joke of that nature was called corny."

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  • 1
    American Dialect Society has a page at americandialect.org which promises access to archives in return for membership: "The minimum contribution requested for membership is $100. The suggested contribution range is $500–$1,000. Membership is offered on an annual basis."
    – Greybeard
    Jul 26, 2020 at 22:35
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Originally "corny" was used in a derogatory way to describe something that was comparable to something else that is full of corn. This connotation was especially prevalent in subcultures such as jazz musicians in the early 1900s to insult each others music.

The humor behind the term comes from being in the know, as only those who were poor enough to subsist on a diet of corn would likely understand the true meaning. This made it all the more amusing when they encountered individuals from privileged backgrounds who adopted the term. As it might suggest those individuals were creeping around in the shadows gazing at feces of the poor.

While it still retains some of its original "low quality aspects", it is now whitewashed to be used more lightheartedly and can also be used in a humorous or affectionate way to describe things that are considered cheesy, outdated, or charming in a nostalgic way rather than retaining only the original meaning.

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    – Community Bot
    Feb 8, 2023 at 6:38
  • I believe that "cheesy" has a similar etymology!
    – logicmoo
    Feb 8, 2023 at 10:55
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Perhaps it's more simple. Humphry Davy (A cornish Chemist) was from Cornwall England) and discovered Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas) in 1799. Perhaps his friends used it to rib him about it.... "That was a Corny Joke".....

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