‘real George’: meaning and origin

The American-English phrase real George means fine, i.e., of very high quality, very good of its kind—as illustrated by the following from Glossary of New Teen-Age Slang, by John Keasler, published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) of Sunday 23rd September 1951:

Like most great gifts to mankind, this glossary of St Louis teen-age slang came about mostly by accident. I was just sitting there minding my own business, in a teen-ager frequented cafe near my house.
The juke box was blaring, of course, and I bolted a ham sandwich in involuntary time to Rosemary Clooney’s suggestion to drop over to her house. Then, for one of the few times since the invention of perpetual motion, that particular juke organ quieted and the conversation of a booth full of youngsters became suddenly audible.
She’s real George all the way,” one lad remarked.
[…]
She’s real George all the way?” I murmured, trying various inflections. None of them added up. What, I asked myself in the puzzlement known to parents and other foreigners since time immemorial, did they say?
[…]
It was only a short canter […] to Lutheran High School. There, two young interpreters, Erv Moellering and Charles Rairden, both seniors, with the help of several girls, part of the football squad and occasional passers-by, succeeded in giving me enough of the basic conjugations of teenese to ask intelligible questions.
And by the time the entire journalism class at Soldan-Blewett high school, under Mrs. Helen C. Koch, wrote definitions and drew diagrams I was more or less prepared to study such notes as this one submitted helpfully by one student:
Real George: Means real squire, or flash. In other words, real neat or cat.”
[…]
This word “George” causing much of the confusion means, simply, approval of something, like “solid” used to be. I regret to report that “solid” has died, but am happy to pass along the information that it is now corny to say corny. “That’s real George,” means fine and “That’s real George all the way,” means excellent.

illustration for Glossary of New Teen-Age SlangSt. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri)—23rd September 1951:

'real George' - St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) - 23 September 1951

 

EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE

 

1-: From the column Voice Of Broadway, by Dorothy Kilgallen, published in the Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey) of Monday 30th October 1950:

Vivian Blaine 1 is real George in “Guys and Dolls.” 2 Gets a chance at comedy as well as some darlin’ song numbers . . .

1 Vivian Blaine (1921-1995) was a U.S. actress and singer.
2 The musical comedy Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway in 1950.

2-: From the column Our Times, by Vera Brown, published in the Detroit Times (Detroit, Michigan) of Friday 5th January 1951:

The Younger Set:
Helen Johnson, commercial artist, has recently been meeting a lot of teen-agers. She says they’re wonderful kids. Only trouble is that sometimes she hasn’t the least idea what they’re talking about.
The other day one of them picked up Miss Johnson’s muff, a combination deal with purse and very nice:
That’s real George!” said the young woman. Then she translated. These days when anything is smart and different and interesting, it’s “real George.”
But when it’s simply super-duper, a phrase which has vanished from the teen-age vocabulary, then it’s “real Sam.”
Maybe they’re referring to Uncle.

3-: From New Sheer Wools Shine In Spring Collections, by Berta Mohr, published in The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of Tuesday 9th January 1951:

Real George” (musician’s lingo for “very okay”) was a white camisole sheath dress in an amazing new ripple rib jersey.

 

ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE

 

As early as Monday 29th January 1951, in his column In Our Town, published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (St. Louis, Missouri), Bob Goddart mused on the origin of the phrase:

Wonder how the expression, “It’s real George,” got started? Things like that worry me. Do they you?

An explanation was soon given to Bob Goddart, for he wrote the following in his column, published on Monday 5th February 1951:

Shirley Goldberg of the Duva Company has straightened me out on the origin of the expression, “It’s real, George.” She writes: “I think you will find that Jerry Lester 3, the comedian, originated the expression, right along with his famous “Bean-Bag” clubs. It just means that something is simply terrific.”

3 Jerry Lester (1910-1995) was a U.S. comedian and singer, who hosted the first late-night television variety series, Broadway Open House, telecast live on NBC from 29th May 1950 to 24th August 1951—the dates are from The Merv Griffin Show: The Inside Story (Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2018), by Steve Randisi.

The following, from The Daily Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey) of Wednesday 14th February 1951, seems to confirm the explanation given by Shirley Goldberg—although Jerry Lester is not mentioned by name:

Television Adds New Word to Vocabulary

One of the ways television is affecting the way we live is furnishing us new vocabulary. A comedian who holds forth five nights a week has coined the word “George” to mean “Yes, that’s good or wonderful.”
It hasn’t taken long for the younger set to catch on to this new word. It’s common to hear teenagers say something or somebody is “real George.”
The television word fad, though by no means the best repercussion of television on society, isn’t bad. It gives young people a brand new way to say “good, fine or all right.” When we look at the status the world is in, it’s amazing that new words are being invented to describe happy situations.
There’s a great deal of hope for a civilization whose human inhabitants can find many people and things that are “real George.” It isn’t a bad idea at all to discover how many “real George” things there are around us.
About the “George-est” time we can think of would be a real spring-like day, with sun shining and buds popping from trees, with the war over in Korea and with Pal Joey in Moscow 4 deciding that peace would be “real George” for the world.

4 Joseph Stalin (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili – 1879–1953) was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR from 1922 to 1953.

The following, from Chicago Playbill (Chicago, Illinois) of Sunday 23rd August 1964, confirms that it was Jerry Lester who originated the phrase:

Well-known and loved by American audiences, Jerry Lester made his first nation-wide impact with the late night TV show, “Broadway Open House” on which he not only introduced the colossal blonde, Dagmar, but gave to the country an entire new realm of colloquialisms which shall live on forever such as “real George,” “bean bag,” and “Stop that dancing up there!”

 

THE REAL GEORGE: A BIG SPENDER

 

The phrase the real George designates a big spender in Who’s Who and Ain’t Along Broadway: The way to get with ’em is to train nights, sleep days and avoid fresh-air poisoning, by Gilbert Millstein, published in The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Sunday 31st December 1950. Gilbert Millstein had “recently returned from a safari through Broadway [during which] he interviewed many natives”—in the following passage, he contrasted two groups: the joiners and the big spenders; the latter were men “with a lot of money” but “completely devoid of personality”:

What differentiates the joiner from everyone else is that he has no visible means of support or, rather, no known occupation. His means of support are the people from whom he can promote a touch and he works at this with a single-minded devotion highly suggestive of the pilot fish nosing around a killer shark. […]
Any time from 2 o’clock on in the afternoon, the joiner really starts to hustle. He shows up at any of the herd’s favorite waterholes, depending on what his appetite is like, cases the place for a familiar face and then “joins.” He takes charge of the table, retails the tiny treasures of fact and fiction he has amassed in the past twenty-four hours and eats. […]
The opposite of the joiner is a species known as the big spender or “the real George” (an adaptation of a Las Vegas gambling term indicating a man with a lot of money), whose tenuous connection with the world of entertainment is that he generally provides it for a shifting entourage of joiners of both sexes.
Exactly what moves him is a difficult thing to assess, but one East Side night club owner has attempted to reduce it to its simplest terms. “He is a character completely devoid of personality,” said the owner unhesitatingly, “who woke up one morning and discovered something—girls. One afternoon, I mean.” […]
[…] In the main, the spender appears to be driven by an overpowering loneliness that sends him into expensive saloons every night to consort with people whom he may or may not know. Two of the more colorless representatives of this group at present are known as “The Empty Suit” and “Harvey With Money.”

The Real George (Big Spender)—detail from an illustration by Carl Rose for Who’s Who and Ain’t Along BroadwayThe New York Times (New York City, N.Y.)—31st December 1950:

The Real George (Big Spender) by Carl Rose - The New York Times - 31 December 1950