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I saw Forbidden Planet wherein the incredibly beautiful and equally naïve Altaira (played by the exactly as beautiful Anne Francis) is swimming and asks, "What's a bathing suit?") and the starship's captain says to himself, "Ho, ho, murder!"

I understand this to mean something that I can't quite translate — it's obviously an expression of excitement/amazement. It might be close to, "You're killing me!" which is used when someone says something unbelievable, very close I think to "You're kidding me! You don't expect me to believe you don't know that!"

I recall a song sung by IIRC a 1940s actress in which she complains about her boyfriend using the term.

I am pretty sure I know what it means but my specific questions are:

  1. When was it current? I grew up in the 1960s but not once did I hear this term used in this way. My bet is it arose during ww2 and faded by mid 1960s.

  2. Is it a variant on "You're killing me!"?

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  • What's the context of the "What's a bathing suit?" remark?
    – alphabet
    Apr 8, 2023 at 4:33
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    The context is the captain's lustful anticipation of Altaira emerging from the water. Apr 8, 2023 at 5:29
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    @JackO'Flaherty: Yes, although the that alphabet did not bother to investigate makes them unlikely to answer the question.
    – releseabe
    Apr 8, 2023 at 5:34
  • @alphabet What doubt did you think releseabe or Laurel left about 'What's a bathing suit?' Apr 11, 2023 at 19:51
  • My search engine suggests his phrase was 'Oh, murder! ' not 'Ho, ho, murder…' Can you say where 'Ho, ho, murder…' is written, please? Apr 11, 2023 at 19:59

4 Answers 4

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Forbidden Planet was released in 1956.

OED actually has an entry for murder which is relevant:

5b. U.S. slang. Something or someone excellent or marvellous.

Its citations only run from 1927 to 1948 — later citations are describing the language of that time.

1927 N.Y. Times 30 Oct. It's Murder... There is a terrific amount of theatrical business.
1948 H. L. Mᴇɴᴄᴋᴇɴ Amer. Lang. Suppl. II. 707 The vocabulary of the jazz addict is largely identical with that of the jazz performer...anything excellent is killer-diller, murder or Dracula.

It seems it's akin to the slang usage of wicked — "Excellent, splendid; remarkable; slang (originally U.S.)" — and the first citation of which is from F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1920. Wicked has lasted longer.

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    Related to "killer" which is something people still would understand if not use. Imagine that the usage is Forbidden Planet was the last time it showed up in a major film. I think "Murder" is perhaps a confusing word -- it is too commonly used to be slang whereas wicked is an unusual word -- is that perhaps the requirement for slang to catch on, that it is clear that the person intends the slang meaning? It is funny that the only usage besides FP is the song COMPLAINING about the word -- I guess it never had a chance.
    – releseabe
    Apr 8, 2023 at 7:22
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    And "Dracula" -- boy, I can bet that never was very robust. It sounds, to frank, really stupid. (Not in the slang sense of stupid -- I mean, unintelligent.)
    – releseabe
    Apr 8, 2023 at 7:23
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Wiktionary has this sense of murder as "dated slang", with the exact sentence from the movie as one of the examples:

Wiktionary murder
(dated slang) Something remarkable or impressive.

1946, Mezz Mezzrow; Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues, New York: Random House, page 230:
Right quick another cat spoke up real loud, saying, “That’s murder man, really murder,” and his eyes were signifying too.

1956, Cyril Hume, Forbidden Planet:

Altaira Morbius: [swimming in a pool] "Come on in."
Commander Adams: "I didn't bring my bathing suit."
Altaira Morbius: "What's a bathing suit?"
Commander Adams: [quickly turning his back] "Oh, murder!"

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  • I wonder what made this piece of slang to have so short a lifetime. I am guessing part of the reason was that it never was very popular. Maybe it arose in a movie and never got much further. Not only was I alive in the 1960s but by 1972 I had lived in both the US east and west (and in multiple cities) and no one ever said this. But I sure did hear, "You're killing me!" more than once. How odd saying "Oh, murder!" (Not exactly what he said but close enough.) would be today. No one would understand unless the context was very clear.
    – releseabe
    Apr 8, 2023 at 7:11
  • As to the exact words, I don't remember what was said in the movie, but I saw the movie as a teenager, and then read the book. But I think the book was written after the appearance of the movie, as a way to milk a few extra dollars out of it. So there may have been differences between the screenplay, the words in the movie, and the subsequent book. Apr 8, 2023 at 7:48
  • @releseabe I'd say most slang terms have a pretty short shelf life and sound dated thereafter. Calling something you like "the bomb" or saying "boom-shakalaka" definitely call a different period to mind for me even though they're much more recent than this term. Could you call something cool "the bee's knees" with a straight face? Does anyone call stuff "far out" if they're not doing a parody of hippies?
    – Casey
    Apr 9, 2023 at 4:39
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Murder

, meaning someone or something excellent dates back to the beginning of the 20th c.

(orig. US black) an excellent or marvellous person or thing

  • 1902 [US] Wash. Times (DC) 14 Sept. 10/5: Murder — A big gathering; excitement.

  • 1909 [US] F.H. Tillotson How I Became a Detective 93: Murder – A big gathering; excitement.

  • 1927 [US] N.Y. Times 30 Oct. n.p.: It’s Murder [...] There is a terrific amount of theatrical business [OED].

(Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

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  • This murder seems related to a "murder of crows" and then not a variant of "murder" in the "kill" sense. But it still seems like the captain in FB could have easily said, "you're killing me" and perhaps in the sense of how painful it was to have such temptation without being able to do anything about it. So equivalent to, "This is murder" and again nothing to do with excitement. Related to the big gathering, excitement is when a comedian speaks of "killing" and he might say, "I murdered them."
    – releseabe
    Apr 8, 2023 at 10:22
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From what I understand, any depiction of overt sexuality in movies was subject to censorship at the time. So I suggest that this is a weak allusion to what could have happened, and then the scene cuts away. Meaning, it doesn't really have to fit the context. It's just a positive affirmation of some sort, that could be passed as slang but doesn't have to be informative for the actual slang usage as movies can be right terrible at abusing slang (much worse in dubbed movies, I suppose).

PS: it came to my attention that French morceau "piece" could also refer to a solid piece of wood, if you know what I mean, and that this is usually thought to be indirectly cognate with murder, or not, which is more confusing than anything.

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