This bugged me as a teenager, and now thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, today’s Wikiworm performs a valuable public service in answering that age old question – “What the hell is a pompatus?”
The word pompatus, also spelled pompitous, is a neologism used in the lyrics of Steve Miller’s 1973 rock song “The Joker”.
Some people call me the space cowboy. Yeah! Some call me the gangster of love. Some people call me Maurice, ‘Cause I speak of the pompatus of love.
The phrases “space cowboy”, “gangster of love” and “Maurice” are all references to previous Miller songs. The “pompatus” line is also a reference to an earlier song of his, “Enter Maurice”, which was recorded the previous year:
My dearest darling, come closer to Maurice so I can whisper sweet words of epismetology in your ear and speak to you of the pompatus of love.
Although Miller claims he invented the words “epismetology” (metathesis of epistemology) and “pompatus”, all of his song-writing demonstrates strong doowop influences, and a 1954 song called “The Letter” by the Medallions had the lines:
Oh my darling, let me whisper sweet words of pizmotality and discuss the puppetutes of love.
The word pompatus has, because of its peculiarity and seemingly nonsensical usage, become a minor pop culture trivia icon. A 1996 movie titled The Pompatus of Love starring Jon Cryer featured four men discussing a number of assorted topics, including attempts to determine the meaning of the phrase. The line has been mentioned in various television show gags, including The Simpsons and South Park. Humor columnist Dave Barry frequently refers to the song line as a source of comedic value, particularly in his 1997 book Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs. ‘Pompatus’ is used by Michael Ondaatje in his 2001 book Anil’s Ghost. Stephen King uses the word in his 2006 novel Lisey’s Story. Tim Dorsey uses the word in his 2010 novel, Gator a-Go-Go.