I've bumped into a great pun from the Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera (transcript)

I didn't get the reference/joke/idiom on "out on a tear last night".

Fiorello: No, that's no good, too. (they rip the contracts again until there's practically nothing left.) Hey, how is it my contract is skinnier than yours?

Driftwood: Well, I don't know. You must've been out on a tear last night. But anyhow we're all set now, aren't we?

Fiorello: Oh sure.

I've checked the definition on Merriam-Webster and it makes no sense to me. Definition:

Definition of on a tear (US, informal):
having great success over a period of time
The team has been on a tear in recent weeks.
The economy is on a tear, but can it last?
  • 1
    The term "tear" literally means the same as "rip", and it's figurative use implies rapid motion or extreme activity more than "success". Often applied to someone who was drunk and running about.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 21:29
  • Sorry, not sure about the use of "running about" in your comment. So, I get it from your comment that if being drunk for one night can make one skinny? Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 21:35
  • 2
    The contract got skinny, not the person....had to do with tearing the paper...humor don't always make sense, or grammar.
    – J. Taylor
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 21:39
  • 1
    Yes, literal tearing (ripping) made the contract skinnier.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 21:53
  • Could someone explain to me the joke at the end of the scene? Why "white carnation"? What does it stand for and how does it refer to 'there ain't no sanity clause'? Fiorello: Ha ha ha ha ha! You can't fool me! There ain't no Sanity Clause! Driftwood: Well, you win the white carnation. Fiorello: I give this to Riccardo. Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 8:50

1 Answer 1


"Being on a tear" in 19th, early 20th century (and possibly current) lowland Scots dialect meant being out having a raucous, and probably drunken good time. My source for this is the traditional song The Day We Went to Rothsay, O!.

The song tells the story of a group of men in Glasgow on a public holiday going down the Clyde to the resort of Rothsay on a paddle steamer. Various unruly things happen and in the last verse they are sent back to Glasgow by the police

The Polis wouldna let us stop

Another nicht in Rothsay O!

The first four lines of the song are

One Hogmany at Glesca Fair,

There was me, mysel' and sev'ral mair,

We a' went off to hae a tear

An' spend the nicht in Rothesay, O,

Whether "On a tear" was ever exclusive to Lowland Scotland or whether it was also Irish, English or even, originally, American I don't know; but even if it was exclusively Scots at some time it is very understandable that it would have crossed the Atlantic with migrants.

  • New Englander here - it's a usage that I'm familiar with.
    – user888379
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 22:59

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