Glossary and Comments
- The story of South Pacific is based mostly on two stories
(“Our Heroine” and “Fo’ Dolla") from James A. Michener’s 1946 collection of short stories, Tales of the South Pacific.
Some characters (like Luther Billis) are taken from other stories. Michener’s book also inspired the movie version of South Pacific, as
well as the movie PT-109 (the story of John F. Kennedy’s command,
some of which is told in Michener’s book) and the TV shows McHale’s Navy
and Gilligan’s Island.
- According to the libretto, “The action of the play takes place place
on two islands in the South Pacific during the recent war." The
two islands are probably in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu); the main
island is likely to be Efate, or possibly Espiritu Santo, or
possibly New Caledonia (which is a French possession, south of, and
not part of, the New Hebrides). From 1906 to 1980, the New Hebrides were
governed jointly by the French and British, in an arrangement the
governments called a “condominium", but just about everyone else
called a “pandemonium". During the war, because some of the
colonial powers could not exercise effective control, the political
boundaries in the South Pacific were effectively in abeyance, and the
islands were either under allied control or Japanese control.
- To get an idea of the geography of the region, imagine Australia.North of Australia is the second-largest island in the world, New Guinea,
which is shaped like a bird, sitting, and facing west. About a thousand
miles east of Australia is New Zealand, consisting of two main islands. The
other islands form a kind of chain.About a thousand miles north of
New Zealand is New Caledonia and its dependent islands.Farther north
is the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).In a northwest line is the Solomon
Islands; some of the larger islands are (moving northwesterly) Guadalcanal,
New Georgia, the Treasuries, and Choiseul.The largest and farthest to
the northwest is Bougainville, which is not politically part of the
Solomons, but of Papua New Guinea.Also part of Papua New Guinea are
two islands north of the tail of New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland.
Just south of the Solomons and west of the New Hebrides is the Coral Sea.
Between Australia and New Zealand, and south of New Caledonia, is the Tasman
- The flag of the United States, the “Stars and Stripes",
had 48 stars from July 4, 1912, to July 3, 1959, a total of 47 years.
On July 4, 2007, the 50 star flag became the flag design of longest
duration, having been in use since July 4, 1960.
- The term G.I. was originally an abbreviation for galvanized iron
used in U. S. Army bookkeeping for articles (such as trash cans). Later it was assumed to stand for government issue, and was used for
all military articles. By the time of World War II it was used for the
soldiers (and other military personnel) themselves.
- Bloody Mary and Liat are described as being Tonkinese. Tonkin was the name used by the French to the northernmost of the three
areas into which Vietnam was divided. The capital of Tonkin was Hanoi.
(Actually, the name Tonkin comes from an alternate name of the city
of Hanoi.) Thus Tonkinese really means Vietnamese.
- It is likely that the character Bloody Mary got that name from the
cocktail of the same name: principal ingredients are vodka and tomato juice;
usually it is seasoned with spices and flavorings. The cocktail takes it
name from its blood red color. The name “Bloody Mary” originated
from Queen Mary I (1553-8), who persecuted protestants and had nearly 300
burned at the stake.
- The seabees are
members of the Navy’s Construction Battalions (abbreviated C. B., hence
seabee). They were first organized in December 1941, and worked mostly in
the Pacific, where most of the construction work was needed, landing shortly
after the marines, and began building airstrips, bridges, roads, gasoline
storage tanks, and quonset
huts for warehouses, hospitals, and housing. Their official motto is Construimus,
Batuimus (We Build, We Fight); their unofficial motto is: “Can
Do!" They were recruited more for their skills rather than
fitness, and so their average age in World War II was 37, much older than
the average sailor.
- The Shore Patrol is the military police for the Navy and Marine
Corps and the Coast Guard when on shore leave. The British Royal Navy
also has their Shore Patrol. Their main function is to make sure
sailors and marines on shore leave do not become too rowdy.
Act I, Scene 1
- Teakwood is a hardwood that grows in monsoon climates, such as
India, Indochina, and the Philippines. It is highly desired for
furniture and flooring. Two of the three species are endangered.
- A pagoda is a tiered tower with multiple eaves found in East Asia
and Southeast Asia. They may be used for religious purposes, as many
are located near Buddhist temples, but may also be used as watchtowers, or
simply observation towers.
- Cacao is an evergreen tree (Theobroma cacao) native to the
tropical rain forests of the Americas, growing below the canopy level. From
the tree are derived cocoa and chocolate.
- Hibiscus is a genus of about 200 species of plants native to warm
climates, mostly known for their large showy flowers.
- Bougainvillea is a genus of thorny woody vines that grow in warm
climates. Their flowers are small and white, but the flowers are
surrounded by bracts of various bright colors, which are often assumed to be
the flowers. Bouganvillea is named for Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Count
of Bougainville, a French military officer who distinguished himself in the
French and Indian War, and later became the first Frenchman to
circumnavigate the globe. Bougainville, the largest island in the
Solomons, but part of the nation of Papua New Guinea, is named for
- Frangipani is a genus (Plumeria) of plants with small white
or pink flowers with poisonous sap.
- A Eurasian is a person of mixed European and Asian ancestry,
usually from a European father and East Asian or Polynesian mother.
- Nellie refers to herself as a “hick” from the “sticks”.
Perhaps she is alluding to the famous headline from the July 17, 1935 issue
of Variety: “Hix Nix Stix Pix”
(although that is a title of a novel).
- The whippoorwill (Caprimulgus vociferus) is a
medium-sized night bird, more often heard than seen, named onomatopoetically
from its call.
- Cognac is a type of brandy made in the Cognac region of
France according to strict rules. (Brandy made elsewhere in France, or
in other countries, or not conforming to all the rules, cannot be called
cognac.) Recently cognac has become popular in hip hop culture, which may
have saved the industry, since its popularity elsewhere had been declining.
- Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a
French author best known for his monumental work A la recherche du temps
perdu (“In Search of Lost Time”, or, less accurately, “Remembrance of Things Past”, after Shakespeare, sonnet
30: this title was used for the English translation over Proust’s objection).
- Anatole France was the pen name of Jacques Anatole François Thibault
(1884-1924), a French author, whose works were on the Index of Prohibited
Books in the 1920s.
- André Paul Guillaume Gide (1869-1961) was a French writer
of the late XIX century and first half of the XX century. His works tried to
reconcile his traditionalist upbringing with his need to be fully himself,
including his homosexuality. He briefly toyed with communism, but
repudiated it after a visit to the Soviet Union. His works were placed
on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1952.
Act I, Scene 2
- Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999), born Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio, Jr, played
his entire major league career (1936-42 and 1945-51) for the New York
Yankees. He had played for the San Francisco Seals (1932-35) and had been a
sensation in the Pacific Coast League. He was known as the “Yankee
Clipper”, and he achieved a 56-game hitting streak in 1941; previously
he had achieved a PCL-record 61-game hitting streak with the Seals in 1933.
He was married to Marilyn Monroe for less than a year (1954). In 1961 the
two became involved again, and he may have been close to marrying her again
when she was found dead in 1962. For the next 20 years he had a half dozen
red roses delivered to her tomb three times a week.
- Betel nuts are the
seeds of the betel palm. Chewing betel nuts is traditional in many
Asian and South Pacific cultures. They are addictive, stain the teeth
red, cause mouth ulcers, and are a known carcinogen.
- Pepsodent is a brand of toothpaste.
It was very popular until the mid 1950s. It was slow to add fluoride, and
lost market share to such brands as Crest,
and Gleem. Today it is a bargain brand, sold primarily at discount
Act I, Scene 3
- PBY was a flying boat used by the Navy in the 1930s and 1940s. The
PB stood for Patrol Bomber, and the Y was the Navy’s designation of the
manufacturer, Consolidated Aircraft (which became Convair in 1942).
- “Rectius vives, Licini, neque altum/Semper urgendo, [neque]
dum procellas [/cautus horrescis, nimium premendo/litus
iniquum.”] (There is a word missing as quoted in the script: the second neque.)
These are the opening two lines from Horace’s Ode X from Book
can be translated something like: “Rightly will you live, O Licinius, if you neither
urge (your ship) on the deep, cautiously to avoid the storms, nor pressing too close to the treacherous shore..”
- Rutgers is the state university of New Jersey, and Princeton,
a member of the Ivy League, is in some sense a rival. The first
intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton. But
Princeton was known as an upper-class institution, and Rutgers middle
class. It was told that when the two met in football, Princeton
players would tell their opponents, Hit me easy, you will be working for me
- Because nurses in the service are officers, but are still mostly single
and young, the pool of service men they would be interested in dating are
mostly enlisted men. Most of the male officers are older, and many are
married.But the military does not allow dating between officers and
enlisted personnel. Thus, despite the nurses in the chorus, the sailors,
marines, and seabees on the island are frustrated, because their are no
women available to them.
- Tokyo Rose is the generic name given to about a dozen women
broadcasting Japanese propaganda in English over the radio during World War
Act I, Scene 4
- A jerry can is a large metal rectangular can for holding gasoline or other liquids, frequently seen strapped to the
side of a jeep. It has three handles. The name comes from the British
in World War II. Jerry is British slang for “German”. The British began the war using simple rectangular
cans, such as are used today for paint thinner. They found the Germans
using a can of superior design. They “reverse engineered” it and
adopted it, and named it for the Germans. (There is some indication,
however, that this usage was not adopted until as late as 1943, in which
case their use in this show would be anachronistic.)
Act I, Scene 5
- The can is military slang for lavatory, and, hence, for that part
of the anatomy that sits on the can.
- Shaker Heights is a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. The land was settled
by the Shakers in 1822. The colony prospered during the middle of the 19th century, but closed in 1889. The land then was developed as a streetcar
suburb and the first garden-style suburb in Ohio. The area was incorporated
as a village in 1912, and became a city in the 1930s. It maintains strict
building codes to preserve its character, and it is on the National Register
of Historic Places.
Act I, Scene 6
- Born Frances Rose Shore, Dinah Shore
grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated from Vanderbilt University. While in college, she became a radio singer. She took the name
“Dinah” from her radio show theme song. She had many
recording successes in the 1940s, and sang for the troops in Normandy and
elsewhere in Europe. In the 1950s she became hugely popular on her TV
Act I, Scene 11
- Champagne is, strictly speaking a kind of sparking wine from the
Champagne region of France, made according to traditional methods. The
French had a provision inserted into the Treaty of Versailles requiring that
no other wine bear the name champagne. But, because the United States
is not a party to the Versailles Treaty, many California vintners have
labeled their sparking wines “California Champagne”.
However, because the reputation of many California sparkling wines have
gained their own reputation, they have ceased using that appellation, but
have included the description “traditional method”, or “méthode traditionnelle”, or
(although the last terminology used outside the Champagne region is
restricted). Currently, I think only Korbel still uses the name “California Champagne”.
Act II, Scene 4
- The song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” was thought at the
time to be too “preachy” for a musical comedy, and there was talk
of removing it. But James Michener himself argued vigorously for its
retention. It led to many negative comments in the South. This
controversy continues today: there are some (including me) who believe that
the story itself argues against racism well enough without the song, and shows how two characters deal
with a conflict between racist feelings and love.
Act II, Scene 5
- The brig is the jail or prison on a ship or naval base or marine
corps base. (In the army and air force the lockup is called the guardhouse
Act II, Scene 6
- The Bronze Star is the ninth highest military decoration, and
fourth highest combat award in the United States Armed Forces. It is
awarded for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service”.
The first bronze stars were authorized and awarded in 1944, but were also
awarded retroactively to the beginning of World War II. Because the
time setting of South Pacific is November and December of 1942, so
Brackett and Billis’s reference is anachronistic.
- From their position as coast watchers, de Becque and Cable can see the
islands of Bougainville, The Treasuries,
Choiseul (named for Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, French
military officer, diplomat, and statesman, who cemented the “diplomatic
revolution”, the alliance of France and Austria in 1757; he became
secretary of state for war [1761-70], and directed affairs in the Seven
Years War; Bougainville named the largest of
the Solomon Islands for him), and New Georgia, all islands in the
Solomons. (The islands named “Marie Louise” and “Bali Ha’i” are fictional.
I’m not sure whether they’re supposed to be in the
Solomons or the New Hebrides--now the nation of Vanuatu.)
Act II, Scene 7
- The Mitsubishi A6M Zero was a Japanese carrier-based fighter
aircraft used in World War II. The Americans called them Zekes.
- Vella Lavella is an island in the Solomons. To the east is
New Georgia; to the west, the Treasury Islands.
Act II, Scene 8
- An Immelmann is an aerial maneuver named for German World War I ace
Max Immelmann. It involves bringing the plane into a vertical climb
and continuing so that the plane is inverted and heading in the opposite
direction; the pilot then executes a 180° roll to return to normal
orientation.(This maneuver is used more in air shows than in combat; in
combat the pilot is in a hurry to get away!)
- A wingover is “a flight maneuver or stunt in which an airplane
enters a climbing turn until almost stalled and is allowed to fall while the
turn is continued until normal flight is attained in a direction opposite
the original heading.” (from The American Heritage®
Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Retrieved March 18,
2007, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/wingover)
- Cape Esperance is the northernmost point on Guadalcanal (one
of the southern Solomon Islands--the native name is Isatabu--the present
capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, is located on Guadalcanal, because
of the extensive infrastructure built during the war). The Battle of
Guadalcanal was a series of land, sea, and air battles fought between the
allies (United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain and her
dependencies) and Japan between 7 August 1942 and 9 February 1943, resulting
in an allied victory, and forms the back story of South Pacific.
(After the Battle of the Solomon Islands, the US Navy did not lose another
battle. This record continues to this day.)
Act II, Scene 11
- LCT refers to Landing Craft, Tank; an
amphibious assault ship for landing tanks on beaches.
Act II, Scene 12
- Battleships are large, heavily armored warships with the largest
guns. By the time of World War II, battleships were nearly obsolete as
fighting ships, being overshadowed by carriers, and were used primarily for
coastal bombardment. Cruisers were similar in size to battleships but
were less heavily armed. Destroyers are fast and maneuverable ships
designed as escorts for battle groups; today, destroyers have largely
- The Curtiss P-40 was a fighter and ground-attack aircraft built
between 1938 and 1944.
- Last updated: 04/23/2020.
- For additions, suggestions, corrections,
or comments on this glossary, please email me: tf_mcq
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Pacific main page.
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