Danger Mouse, linguistic prodigy

In idle half-hours I’ve been watching Danger Mouse on a DVD I picked up for the price of a croissant. As well as being enjoyably daft and wryly amusing, it’s a trip down memory lane; my sister and I loved the cartoon as children.

Browsing its Wikipedia page, I see that it was even more popular than I supposed, placing third (behind The Muppet Show and The Simpsons) in a UK Channel 4 list of the top 100 children’s TV shows of all time. It had a fantastic theme tune too:

Puns and silly wordplay are a constant (‘Shooting star? Crumbs! I didn’t even know they were loaded’). In an episode titled ‘I Spy With My Little Eye…’, written by Brian Trueman and directed by Keith Scoble, there is an exchange rich in overt linguistic humour, excerpted here.

The three characters featured are the main three ‘goodies’: Danger Mouse, aka DM, ‘the world’s most famous secret agent’; his hamster sidekick Penfold, ‘the world’s most useless assistant’; and Colonel K, DM’s boss, a bulky chinchilla who resembles a walrus.

Danger Mouse, Penfold, Colonel K cartoon 2

DM and Penfold have been to the Arctic to stop their toadly nemesis, Baron Greenback (pictured below with Nero, his pet caterpillar) from melting the ice caps and flooding the world. Back in London, DM tells Colonel K how he managed to communicate with a group of Laplanders (who are depicted in a regrettably racist and lazy fashion).

Colonel K: Can’t understand how you understood ’em.

Danger Mouse: It was a bit tricky, Colonel, but fortunately I speak seventeen Eskimo dialects.*

CK: Ah, good show.

DM: And they spoke the eighteenth.

CK: Oh, bad show. So uh, uh–

DM: Well, I translated into Ancient Egyptian, out of that into Old High Dutch, into Bulgarian, French, Urdu and… back into English.

CK: By jove! And that did it, did it?

Penfold: No, Colonel, I mean, that’s Morse code!

CK: What’s Morse code?

P: ‘Didit, didit, dah dah dah dah didit’!

CK: Chap’s off his rocker. I mean, DM’s command of languages solved the problem!

DM: No, Colonel. We just settled for sign language.

CK: Ah.

Danger Mouse cartoon 3 - Baron Greenback and Nero

What exactly DM means by sign language is unclear: perhaps gesture, or more likely some mythical universal sign language that one or some of the Laplanders happened to command. DM himself speaks dozens of languages fluently, but the route of translation he follows is fanciful – at least, I don’t see any system behind it.

I especially like how the tag question Did it? is transformed through reduplication into Morse code, and the fact that dialects are cited rather than languages – a distinction seldom observed in children’s cartoons, as are references to Urdu and early Germanic tongues.

Apparently in certain translations the show’s name had to be changed to retain the ‘DM’ emblazoned prominently on the protagonist’s outfit: Donnie Murdo in Scots Gaelic, Dzielna Mysz ‘Brave mouse’ in Polish, Dundermusen ‘Thundermouse’ in Swedish. It was recently rebooted, but I have no plans to see the new episodes.


* On the use of Eskimo as opposed to Inuit or other terms, see this discussion by linguist Linda Lanz, and this usage and etymological note at the American Heritage Dictionary.

18 Responses to Danger Mouse, linguistic prodigy

  1. Interesting how long-lasting & pervasive Goon Show (1950s!) humour is, more specifically London-Irish Milliganisms? ‘He was screaming in Agony. Luckily, I speak it fluently.’ Xander Armstrong features: genuinely witty on Pointless, with Osman, with Miller and elsewhere, I think.

  2. John Cowan says:

    Unfortunately, I suspect “dialect” here is the older derogatory sense of “language spoken by politically unimportant speakers, not worthy of the name of language“.

  3. ha! I remember Danger Mouse… dubbed into German, alas, which made the whole thing less funny. Or punny, rather.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s a challenge to translate all that wordplay, I would say. What I remembered most about it were the music and the characters’ voices, especially Baron Greenback’s wheezy villainy.

  4. astraya says:

    At one time in my life I was a school boarding house assistant. The students watched this program and noticed that I had the same initials, so referred to me as ‘Danger Mouse’, which I possibly should have taken as a compliment (suave, sophisticated, punny, saves the world on a regular basis etc), but I didn’t.

  5. EmmaJCarson says:

    Love the way there’s so much adult humour in animation – whether it’s for kids or not!

  6. jennirodd says:

    Actually, the new reboot is rather good. I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.

  7. elizdanjou says:

    I’ve been looking forward to a finding a chance to see some of the reboot since I discovered it features Stephen Fry (no linguistic slouch, he) and seems to have an appropriate tone of not taking itself too seriously….

    • Stan Carey says:

      An unserious tone is crucial, I think, and part of why the original series worked so well. There certainly seems to be plenty of talent attached to the new series.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    I gather it didn’t pass the Bechdel test? LOL


  9. I too loved Dangermouse as a child, and I think I drew on it as inspiration in art class once (I don’t remember the art, just a conversation about it). I would happily see the new series, but don’t know if any episodes been shown in Australia yet and would not be notified if they were (I don’t even glance at the pre-6pm online TV guide), so I guess I’ll just wait until someone points me to an online video.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Likewise. I watch very little TV aside from box-sets, or when I’m visiting people who watch it a lot, so I’m more likely to see the new Danger Mouse by accident than design. And though I drew a lot as a kid, I never sketched DM or his crew.

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