Why Mickey Mouse is not mickey mouse

A little while ago, I found myself describing some organization as a “mickey mouse” operation. It was not the first time that I had used the term
“mickey mouse” to describe something in an unflattering fashion and this Kat assumes that most Kat readers have also used the term in this fashion. Take any dictionary and one will find a one or more definitions for the term that convey this notion (e.g., as defined in the Urban Dictionary— “Substandard, poorly executed or organized. Amateurish”). But this time, I began to think: how is it that the name of Walt Disney’s iconic animated character became an accepted term of derision? It would seem, after all, that rare is the situation where an object so carefully cultivated to project a positive image, such as Mickey Mouse, has come to have such a negative connotation. In recounting this tale, we encounter a fascinating combination of how copyright transmogrified into a commercially valuable name and trademark mark, while in parallel the name entered the lexicon with such an uncomplimentary meaning.

First a little bit of history. Created in 1928 by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, the Mickey Mouse character first appeared in movie form that same year in "Steamboat Willie", one of the earliest movie animations with sound. According to Time magazine, which published an 80th anniversary piece on Mickey Mouse in 2008, the original name given to the character was Mortimer.
“The moniker didn't last; there are a number of tales attempting to explain how and why — the most popular being that Disney's wife hated the name and suggested its replacement — but soon he was ready for his debut as Mickey”.
After 130 movies, a long-running newspaper comic strip, comic books, video games, various merchandising products, a long-running television program, "The Mickey Mouse Club" (think Annette Funicello and Justin Timberlake), cable television, and his seemingly ubiquitous presence at Disney theme parks, Mickey Mouse has become the best known cartoon character in the world. Indeed, this Kat was present at the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim in 1955 (thanks to Mother and Father Kat), and he remembers nothing from that historic day other than the character of Mickey Mouse.

This is not to say that the figure has remained static. As described by Wikipedia
“Originally characterized as a mischievous antihero, Mickey's increasing popularity led to his being rebranded as an everyman, usually seen as a flawed, but adventurous hero. In 2009, Disney began to rebrand the character again by putting less emphasis on his pleasant, cheerful side and reintroducing the more mischievous and adventurous sides of his personality, beginning with the video game Epic Mickey.”
Along the way, both the visual character and the name, Mickey Mouse, have come to be valuable commercial properties. A check of the USPTO trademark database TESS reveals that the “Mickey Mouse” mark was first registered in the name of Walt Disney in 1928; this registration is still in force. Other registrations for the name have followed. As well, of course, the character itself has enjoyed long commercial success under various forms of intellectual protection. Whatever changes have been made to the character, there is Kat consensus that the character of Mickey Mouse enjoys a universal positive image.

And so the question—how do we account for the dictionary definitions, in various forms, which connote something inferior or half-baked? This Kat sought to find an explanation. While there appears to be agreement that it came into such use in the 1930’s, there is no consensus on the exact genesis. The most interesting thoughts on this issue were found on a November 11, 2002, entry on Google Answers, posted by “justaskscott-ga” as follows:
"There is a lot of speculation, and even some informed-sounding statements, on the Internet as to the origin of "Mickey Mouse" as a derogative adjective. Some think that it relates to the poor quality of Mickey Mouse watches. Another source traces it to American college students of the late 1950s, who would describe an easy course as "a Mickey Mouse course." Yet another goes back to World War II, where soldiers apparently referred to absurd army routine as "mickey mouse". But the true origin seems to be in the jazz world. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (a source that I've found trustworthy in the past): "Mickey mouse (adj.) 'small and worthless' is from 1936, originally used especially of mediocre dance-band music, a put-down based on the type of tunes played as background in cartoon films ...."
The Urban Dictionary concurs with this conclusion, stating the term dates from— “1930-35; after the animated cartoon character created by Walt Disney, orig. with reference to the banal dance-band music played as background to the cartoons.”

Assuming that this explanation is the correct one, in then raises an interesting and more fundamental question: how did the specific reference to the quality of the background music to the cartoons expand to become a general term of derision? This Kat found no ready answer. More generally, how do we account for the fact that Mickey Mouse, the property, appears to co-exist along the use mickey mouse (and even in capitalized form) as a derogatory adjective? One reason, perhaps, is that the popularity of Mickey Mouse derives the cartoon character. While the name is important, at the end of the day, it is ancillary to the artistic core. It also points to the seemingly unlimited ways by which a name can take on independent meaning quite detached from its origins. The power of words and names goes far beyond the matter of reputation and goodwill.

Permit this Kat to conclude by bringing the closing lines to the song that brought each television episode of The Mickey Mouse Club to an end (at
least in this Kat’s Mickey Mouse heyday in the 1950’s).

“Now it's time to say goodbye, to all our company,

M-I-C, See you real soon!

K-E-Y, Why? Because we like you!

M - O - U - S – E”
Why Mickey Mouse is not mickey mouse Why Mickey Mouse is not mickey mouse Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, February 26, 2016 Rating: 5


  1. Actually, "Steamboat Willie" was Mickey Mouse's second outing - he had previously appeared in the silent "Plane crazy".

  2. Another musical derogatory term that might be related is "Mickey Mousing" as a verb, which refers to film or TV soundtracks where the music very unsubtly synchronises with the physical movements of characters on screen.

  3. What seems clear is that it never was intended as a desription of the professionalism with which Disney has used IP to prevent the mouse from entering the public domain.

  4. I always assumed that it was a reference to the idea that Mickey Mouse was a children's cartoon, and so anything described pejoratively as being "mickey mouse" simply meant that it was childish and/or unsophisticated. I'd say the fascinating story unveiled here seems to show this is not necessarily the case, but it raises the question as to why "Mickey Mouse" entered the jazz world with a pejorative meaning in the first place!

  5. Fascinating ! I love these occasional historical postS by Neil.

    Perhaps the derogatory nature of Mickey Mouse comes from the word "mickey" as in "taking the mickey" although I do not know where that term comes from or from Mickey Mouse being a cartoon character is not real ?

  6. Another factor could be down to the humour of many of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons being based on situations where things went wrong. By the late 1930's, Mickey had become something of a national icon, and the studio used to receive letters complaining about the negative effect on the nation's morals if he was shown behaving badly. The studio then gave him more gravitas, and his role became more that of a "straight man", chaotic situations then being reserved for other characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy.


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