The Funny Dictionary: An A-Z of Kids' Funny Definitions (2018) has had many influences and influencers, including the originator of the phrase 'Pullet Suprises', Amsel Greene...

Amsel Greene (17 March 1893–1 February 1971) was an author and a much-loved and dedicated teacher. She is most famous for coining the phrase ‘Pullet Surprise’ (a corruption of ‘Pulitzer Prize’, meaning a humorous or amusing misinterpretation of words).

Amsel was born in Oakesdale, Washington. ‘Amsel’ was a name invented by the father of a different ‘Amsel’. He created A-M-S-E-L from his initials and those of his brothers and sisters — Anne, Mary, Sam, etc.

In 1916, Amsel graduated from the University of Idaho. She was a teacher for more than 40 years, for 16 years in Idaho high schools and 28 years in Helena, Montana, becoming ‘one of Helena’s most well-known teachers’.[1] When earthquakes badly damaged the Helena High School classrooms in 1935, Amsel had the idea of using railway coaches for classrooms while the regular classrooms underwent major repairs.  

While teaching at Idaho Falls High School, Amsel became concerned about students’ misinterpretations of words. So, she developed her own course in vocabulary building. Unable to find a suitable textbook on Latin and Greek roots and derivatives, she compiled her own material. Ultimately, she used this material for her thesis, obtaining a master’s degree in classical languages from Stanford University. Her thesis became the textbook Word Clues published by Harper & Row. Schools across America used Amsel's textbook.

Many of Amsel’s former students kept in contact with her. One student she inspired was writer, educator, and publisher Professor Gerald (Jerry) Sullivan (1932–2002). Interviewed in 1976, he said:  ‘I’ve been a word nut ever since Amsel Greene inspired me to learn about the history of words in Helena High School’.[2]

From her classes based on Word Clues, Amsel culled hundreds of misinterpretations of words from her students’ exams and classroom responses. Her students’ strangely logical errors fascinated her. After retiring from teaching, Amsel moved to Laguna Hills, California, where she set about compiling the best of these misinterpretations into a book called Pullet Surprises, where she coined the phrase:

‘A Pullet Surprise! Here was the term for which I had been groping. I had jotted down hundreds of classroom misinterpretations for which I had found no name. The terms boners, bloopers and booboos imply stupidity or inadvertence, whereas student errors are often marvels of ingenuity and logic. But Pullet Surprises sparked a Eureka response. Its rightness had the impact of revelation!'[3]

Amsel set about working on the manuscript with the help of her sister Eula Grene Miller, with whom she started living at Leisure World in California. Then, out of the blue, Amsel learned in July 1969 that she had liver cancer and had only two months to live.

According to Eula, Amsel ‘accepted the verdict quietly’.[4]  Amsel wanted to publish Pullet Surprises before she died, so she sent the manuscript to a local printer, because that seemed quicker than submitting it to publishers. She and Eula printed 3,000 copies, at their own expense. Amsel dedicated the book to Eula:

‘To my sister, Eula … who shared with me the work and the fun of choosing the Pullet Surprises to appear in this book, and whose encouragement in any enterprise has been my chief blessing always’.

Bookstores in Helena bought a few hundred copies of Pullet Surprises. Her friends bought a few hundred more. The rest stayed unsold in the sisters’ garage.

Great Falls Tribune Sun Mar 22 1970

Her work on Pullet Surprises sustained Amsel through her illness. She received chemotherapy and was feeling fine. Then, on 1 December 1970, doctors decided Amsel was too weak to continue treatment. They stopped her chemotherapy. Amsel’s condition deteriorated quickly.

Then, in Eula’s words, ‘a wonderful thing happened’.[5] A publishing company phoned Amsel to say that Pullet Surprises was ‘a delightful book’ and that they wanted to publish it. Amsel went into hospital on 4 January 1971. Just before she died, she signed a contract with Scott, Foresman and Company.

Through her suffering, Amsel would tell Eula: ‘Haven’t we been lucky about Pullet Surprises? Isn’t it wonderful that my mind didn’t go first?’[6]

Amsel succumbed to cancer less than a month before her 78th birthday. Her ashes were interred in the TO Greene family plot in the Moscow, Idaho City Cemetery.

Two years later, Eula sent a copy of Pullet Surprises to American television and radio personality Ralph Story (1920–2006) at KABC-TV. He told viewers about the book on his morning show. As a result, within a month, Eula sold all remaining 650 copies of Pullet Surprises left in the sisters’ garage.

The Independent Record Mon Dec 22 1969

Sources

1. The Independent Record, 23 February 1971, 6.

2. Great Falls Tribune, 7 Mar 1976, 39.

3. Amsel Greene, Pullet Surprises (1969), 11.

4. The Daily Times News, 10 June 1971, 24.

5. The Daily Times News, 10 June 1971, 24.

6. The Daily Times News, 10 June 1971, 24