‘to clutch the pearls’: meaning and origin



The humorous American-English phrase to clutch the pearls, also to clutch one’s pearls, means: to react with shock or dismay, especially in response to something considered immoral, underhand or vulgar.

This phrase occurs, for example, in the review of Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul (2022), a U.S. comedy film written, directed and produced by Adamma Ebo, starring Regina Hall—review by Rasha Ali, of USA Today, published in the Montgomery Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama, USA) of Sunday 11th September 2022:

We see glimpses of hypocrisy, selfishness, abuse of power and other un-Christian practices.
While the image of church leaders behaving in ways that would make anyone clutch their pearls might seem jarring, Hall says it shouldn’t come as a surprise.




The phrase to clutch the pearls, also to clutch one’s pearls, originated in an episode of In Living Color 1—as explained by Virginia Mann, Record television critic, in Who’s the joke on, anyway? Debating ‘In Living Color’, published in The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey, USA) of Sunday 13th May 1990:

The Homeboys Shopping Network is two black guys hawking hot goods from the back of a truck. Their inventory includes a satellite dish stamped, “Property of NASA.” Their spiel: “Not only will you be able to get all the cable stations out there. . . . you’ll be able to talk directly to the astronauts.”
In another skit, two effeminate black men sit side by side in director’s chairs, rating films one week, critiquing paintings a few episodes later. (Picture Siskel and Ebert on megadoses of estrogen.)
These two are flamboyantly gay. They’re also not rocket scientists. Antoine, played by David Alan Grier, says he has just three words to describe actor Ralph Macchio: fab-u-lous. And Blaine, one of the many creations of gifted comic Damon Wayans, thinks Glenn Close is a man. Otherwise informed, he squeals, “Well, clutch the pearls. What a sneaky thing to do.”
In this age of enlightened TV comedy, these stereotypical skits—from Fox Broadcasting’s hot new predominantly black variety-comedy show, “In Living Color”—are unusual. Served up by white writers and actors, the very same routines might be labeled racist.
Many black viewers say a big reason they don’t take offense is that the program originates from a black executive producer.
“I don’t imagine that everybody likes it [the show], but I do feel that the presence of the primarily black cast and producers familiar with the nuances of the black community makes it more palatable,” says Jim Williams, director of public relations for the NAACP.
“The black community has just been so hungry for this type of show”, Kim Wayans says. “All these little kids are doing ‘Two snaps up,’ and ‘Clutch the pearls.’”

1 In this episode of In Living Color, broadcast on Sunday 15th April 1990, Damon Wayans put his hand to his chest when exclaiming “Clutch the pearls, what a sneaky thing to do!”.




The earliest occurrences of the phrase to clutch the pearls, also to clutch one’s pearls, that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the column Nightclubbing, by Paul Willistein, published in The Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA) of Saturday 9th June 1990:

In Phila., sweaty fun from a cool Kid Creole
The assignment: Kid Creole and the Coconuts. The time: 10 p.m. June 2. The place: Philadelphia.
The Schuylkill Expressway behind me, a root beer and bratwurst resting uncomfortably in my stomach, I was ready for anything when I entered the Chestnut Cabaret.
The ethnically-diverse audience, some in suits and dresses, was atypical for the Cabaret’s T-shirt and jeans crowd. And then—well, clutch my pearls—three Ivana Trump-coiffed women slinked past. The temperature was tropical.

2-: From Prouse’s lawyer knew something about the subject, by Cheryl Johnson, staff writer, published in the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA) of Tuesday 21st August 1990:

The 36 little singers from Golden Valley’s Meadowbrook Elementary are starting to worry that they’re never going to see the inside of the official state residence, a few private minutes with Gov. Rudy Perpich and those dogs. And he (whine here) promised. […] Ray Bohn, the governor’s main mouthpiece, says […] “Obviously, having these kids to the residence is one the things we’re going to be doing […]. That will be done. We’ll be contacting them in the next few days.” . . . Clutch the Mikimoto pearls 2 and try not to swoon, but in fairness, we’d like to say Perpich has a pretty darned good record for living up to his promises to have kiddies over to the mansion for hot dogs.

2 This refers to the pearls sold by the company founded by the Japanese pearl farmer and entrepreneur Mikimoto Kōkichi (1858-1954), who is credited with creating the world’s first cultured pearls.

3-: From A Guide to Hipspeak in the ’90s, by Reon Carter, of The Cincinnati Enquirer, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) of Monday 19th November 1990:

Clutch the Pearls: Said in amazement or disbelief usually by females. Usually accompanied by a hand to the chest. Ex.: You mean, that married guy had the nerve to ask you out? Clutch the Pearls!

4-: From The Trib’s Best Bets, published in the Oakland Tribune (Oakland, California, USA) of Friday 10th May 1991:

Clutch the pearls! Campy critic Blaine Edwards (Damon Wayans) gets hit by a piece of stage equipment on Sunday night’s “In Living Color” (Channel 2, 8 p.m.) as Blaine and Antoine (David Alan Grier) conduct another hilarious “Men on Art.” (Reports are that Sunday’s “cliffhanger” won’t be resolved for a couple of weeks.)




The gesture consisting, for a woman, in putting her hand to her throat and clutching at her pearl necklace had been a literary topos expressing shock or dismay long before that episode of In Living Color was broadcast on Sunday 15th April 1990. The following are two examples:

1-: From Chapter X of The Rake’s Progress, a romance by Marjorie Bowen 3, published in The Gentlewoman (London, England) of Saturday 12th February 1910:

The Countess Lavinia stood silent; she had no words to meet the occasion. Only once before had she spoken directly with her husband, when he had brought her home to Lyndwood Holt, and then, as now, he had silenced her. Her dumb hatred of him rose and swelled in her heart to agony; she made a motion of her hand to her throat and then clutched at the pearls on her tight bodice.
The Earl glanced away from her as if he found her not worth of his attention.
She gave a little gasp, and the string of pearls broke and came away in her hot hand.

3 Marjorie Bowen was the pen name of the British author Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long (née Campbell – 1885-1952).

2-: From History Is Made At Night: Serialized By Jack Lewis From The Screen Play By Gene Towne And Graham Baker, published in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio, USA) of Sunday 21st March 1937:

“Don’t give me orders, Madame,” he said. “Tonight I’m not your chauffeur. I’ve come to make love to you!”
The woman’s left hand clutched at her pearls. A shudder of fear passed through her body.

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