"What the hell does pompatus mean?"
Some people call me the Space Cowboy, yeah
Some call me the Gangster Of Love
Some people call me Maurice
’Cause I speak of the pompatus of love
These are the opening lines of Steve Miller’s 1973 hit “The Joker.” If you don't know this lyric, you've been living under a rock!
The question, of course, is "What the hell does pompatus mean?"
This wasn’t even Miller’s first use of the word. His song “Enter Maurice,” from the 1972 album Recall The Beginning...A Journey From Eden,
includes this spoken section:
My dearest darling
Come closer to Maurice
So I can whisper sweet words of epismetology in your ear
And speak to you of the pompitous of love
That brings up another question: "What the hell does epismetology mean?"
Both words are spelled out on the lyric sheet that accompanied Miller's album but you won’t find epismetology or pompitous in the Oxford English Dictionary and it will certainly trip your spell checker. Is Steve Miller some kind of word inventor?
Consider a 1954 tune called “The Letter,” cut by the doo-wop group The Medallions. In its center section, lead singer Vernon Green recites what sounds like:
Let me whisper
Sweet words of pismatology
And discuss the puppitutes of love
My wife Jane, while researching this very topic in 1996 for the syndicated column/website The Straight Dope By Cecil Adams, was able to interview singer Green, who penned “The Letter.” Vernon said the words in question are:
“Pizmotality”—his way of referring to thoughts so personal, they can only be shared with the one you love, and
“Puppetutes”—Green’s word for a secret paper-doll fantasy figure.
Because he was illiterate, he never wrote the words down, or even concerned himself with their spelling. Vernon died in 2000 and Jane regrets not recording their conversation. Recalls Jane, "He seemed to get a kick out of the confusion about the words, yet acted as though it was really natural to have made them up."
So what we have, then, is Steve Miller’s misinterpretation of two made-up words. He has not acknowledged this, perhaps fearing legal repercussions, and has tried to brush off the question by referring to “Pompatus” as just being jive talk and having no meaning. When Jane contacted his publicist Jim Welch, he invoked the handy, all-purpose “artistic license” angle.
Steve Miller used “Pompitous” and “Epismetology” again in a song entitled “Conversation” on his 1993 album Wide River.
I want to speak to you
Of the pompitous of love
Is what I’m thinking of
“Pompatus” has crept into our vocabulary. Actor Jon Cryer wrote and directed a movie called The Pompatus Of Love in 1996. And the Guess Who’s 1974 hit “Clap For The Wolfman” featured DJ Wolfman Jack speaking:
Everybody’s talking about the Wolfman’s
Pompatus of love
However “Pompatus” and “Epismitolgy” are spelled, and whatever meanings they are bestowed, we at least know their origin, despite what Steve's publicist said.
Just in case you're feeling sympathetic to Miller and want to give him the benefit of any doubt, consider these lyrics, also from The Joker," lifted nearly verbatim from the Clovers' 1953 recording "Lovey Dovey."
You’re the cutest thing that I ever did see
I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree
Lovey dovey, lovey dovey, lovey dovey all the time
Coincidence? I think not.
Steve Miller - The Joker
The Medallions - The Letter
The Guess Who - Clap For The Wolfman
The Clovers - Lovey Dovey (live)