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Does anyone know the origins of the phrase “Is dis/this a system?”?

After seeing it in 1920s and 30s era American comic strips, and later scattered in multiple pop-cultural contexts, I was wondering if the phrase was tied to any specific event or cultural phenomenon.

Here’s an example from Victoria University:

“Is dis a system?” a bearded man walking through a city asks.

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    Your question should contain some context to indicate how the phrase is used, by whom and in what circumstances.
    – Greybeard
    Sep 20, 2020 at 19:39
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    In comic strips, using dis would be "eye dialect" to indicate that the speaker had a low-class dialect of English. Many sociolects, including AAVE, don't fricate the interdental /ð/ in this, and spelling it with a D is one way to notate the pronunciation in print. Print good enough for comic strips, anyway.. Sep 20, 2020 at 20:36
  • I'm wondering just what he is calling into question. His walking or the city he is in?
    – Elliot
    Sep 20, 2020 at 21:21

1 Answer 1

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The site Pseudopodium traces the expression back to American comic writer Milt Gross (while also noting that Robert Crumb later revived the expression in his comics):

You need a catchphrase to make it in this wicked world, and Milt Gross gives the peculiar catchphrase "Is diss a system?" the blanket coverage of an assured trademark -- it's in pretty much every other column. (His claim to "Banana oil!" seems more contestable, though he's still two years earlier than the first OED attestation, P. G. Wodehouse in 1927.)

Indeed, it was so iconic a phrase from Milt that it was chosen as the title of a (2010) collection of his early works. "Is Diss a System? presents some of the most outstanding and hilarious examples of Jewish dialect humor drawn from the five books Gross published between 1926 and 1928". Here's an example from Nize Baby (1926), specifically the "ferry tale from Romplesealskin" (fairy tale from Rumpelstiltskin):

[W]ot he deedn't had nidder a niddle nodder a trad notivvin a hoat in de hend de whole time!! Iss diss a system???!!

From this, it becomes clear that the dialect being represented here is a (near-unreadable) Yiddish-English mix.

Does it mean something? I'm not sure. One person on Tumblr says it is one of his "priceless, original non sequiturs".

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