Potrzebie

From Academic Kids

Potrzebie is a seemingly nonsensical word (actually Polish), popularized by its use as a running gag in the early issues of Mad not long after the comic book began in 1952. The word is pronounced "po-TSCHEB-yeh" in Polish and means "as needed" or "as necessary". Its Eastern European feel was a perfect fit for the New York Jewish style of the magazine.

Mad editor Harvey Kurtzman spotted the word printed in the Polish language section of a multi-languaged "Instructions for Use" sheet accompanying a bottle of aspirin, and Kurtzman decided it would make an appropriate non sequitur. After cutting the word out of the instruction sheet, he made copies and used rubber cement to paste "Potrzebie" randomly into the middle of Mad satires. For instance, in "Book! Movie!" in Mad 13 (July 1954), the word was pasted in the background under a picture on a wall. It was illustrated as a rebus in "Puzzle Pages!" in Mad 19 (January 1955). Frequent repetition gave it the status of a catch phrase or in-joke among the readership which continues to the present day. In the first "Mad Style Guide", edited by Bhob Stewart in 1994, the word was made available for display on T-shirts and other licensed products. It also sees occasional use as a metasyntactic variable by hackers.

A typical appearance of the word is exemplified by the MAD version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which begins:

"Whan that swithin potrzebie,
"The burgid prillie giben heebie-jeebie".

In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the "Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures", developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth, later a famed computer scientist. According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm. The system also features such units as whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo and hah.

The word had a great impact among readers, as evidenced by jazz trombonist Bob Brookmeyer's tune "Potrezebie" (sic), recorded on the album "The Dual Role of Bob Brookmeyer" (1954), reissued on CD in 1992.

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