Isn’t that weird? Not just that a character from a long-running sitcom ended up on a non-comedy spinoff, but that of all the characters on Mary Tyler Moore, it wasn’t Mary or Rhoda or Murray who ended up popping up on Lou Grant but Aunt Flo, who had only appeared three times on Mary Tyler Moore. You’d think they would have eliminated any connection between Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant, to underscore how different a series the latter was from the former. And they basically did that, save for this one spare appearance of Eileen Heckart in the fourth season of Lou Grant. I think it’s especially odd that of all the characters to reappear, it would be the only one whose name basically means “menstrual discomfort.” But whatever, her name is Florence and she’s Mary’s aunt, right? Nope. She’s actually not even Mary’s aunt; she’s her cousin. Here, watch:
So then my question is this: Were the Mary Tyler Moore writers just making a period joke, if they went out of their way to call a character Aunt Flo?
I mean, I guess first off I’m not sure people would have known that expression back in 1975, when the episode aired. Unfortunately for me (and I guess her), Aunt Flo doesn’t merit an entry in most dictionaries. Wiktionary has one, but it doesn’t give any indication about when people starting using this cute little personification. So here’s what I did: I searched Google Books for “aunt flo” to see when the period jokes start. The result of my less-than-scientific process? A 1999 article on home remedies that mentions Aunt Flo alongside another euphemism for menstruation, “falling off the roof,” which I have never heard before but which sounds especially awful. Unless I missed an entry, it’s the first mention on Google Books of an Aunt Flo who’s not an actual aunt. And yeah — there are a ton of non-metaphorical Aunt Flos, and it’s kind of weird to read about this Aunt Flo or that Aunt Flo talking or writing a letter or arriving at a party or throwing her arms around her nieces and nephews in a warm embrace. Also, many an Aunt Flo has died, apparently, and that takes the metaphor to unpleasant, new territory, and I won’t even talk about the mention of Aunt Flo in the context of bed linens. Even this 1995 book about sexual dynamics in pop culture mentions Aunt Flo the character but not Aunt Flo the phenomenon. So I suppose the Mary Tyler Moore writers weren’t making a subtle off-color joke when they decided Mary should get a visit from her Aunt Flo.
So, now, two questions.
First, could it be possible that Aunt Flo only entered the English language in the 90s, around the time that Cher Horotwitz framed the whole process in much cooler terms when she complained about surfing the crimson tide? I would have guessed that Aunt Flo would be much older, but then again I wasn’t talking about menstruation in the 80s. It’s 2013 and I’m pretty much only talking about now for the first time.
Second, if this expression isn’t as old as I thought, is it possible that Aunt Flo the Mary Tyler Moore character could have helped it become popular? If not through the original airings than through the TV Land reruns? If this is the case, I would like to think the Eileen Heckart found out and reacted with a mix of pride of horror.
And if there’s a better way to research when a certain phrase entered the English language, tell me. If there’s additional information about menstruation that you may have, I’m good, however. You keep that.