Before I began reading my next book group book, a novel called Lessons in Chemistry, I glanced at author Bonnie Garmus’s bio inside the back cover, where I saw that her dog’s name is 99. I wondered if Garmus had watched the sitcom Get Smart as a kid. Garmus is 66, so it’s just possible.
My dad and I occasionally watched Get Smart, a clever send-up of James Bond created by Mel Brooks. Maxwell Smart, played by Don Adams, was a clueless spy, prone to drawing precisely the wrong conclusions. His partner agent’s code name was 99. The lovely Barbara Feldon, who played 99, caused many viewers’ hearts to flutter. It occurs to me now that she was the sitcom counterpart to the svelte Emma Peal (Diana Rigg) from The Avengers.
Several taglines survive from Get Smart, including “Sorry about that, Chief” and “Would you believe . . . ?” One that took hold in my family was “Good thinking, 99,” a compliment Smart would bestow upon his smarter partner. At our house, whenever someone figured something out, such as deciphering a hard clue on Saturday Review’s Double-Crostic, the response would be, “Good thinking, 99.” My husband and I still say this sometimes.
When I read Garmus’s dog’s name, I googled the phrase and found this explanation of its origins:
Maxwell Smart would always be quoted saying, “Good thinking, 99.” 99 is used because it is very close to 100 and is an indication of intelligence, because scoring 99 on any difficult test or project requires intelligence. It is a pop culture reference to an old television show that your parents probably remember.
Whoever wrote that should have asked his or her parents to explain the reference. How dare they overlook the significance of Agent 99?
This is an example of false etymology. Sometimes a similarity between words seems to imply a connection that isn’t there. History, for example, does not derive from his + story (i.e. narrative that leaves out women); rather, it’s from an ancient Greek word meaning “knowledge acquired through research.” Acronyms that sound too good to be true usually are, such as “Gentlemen only, ladies forbidden” to explain golf, which actually derives from some old Scottish word.
The online 99 explanation seems like something somebody just made up. The writer seems to be thinking, “99% is a pretty good grade, right?” Either way, I have to assume Bonnie Garmus’s dog is smart, because she’s either named after Agent 99 or scores almost 100% on every test.
Does your family use catchphrases from TV or movies? It will be interesting to see our generational (and other) differences.