THE DOLEFUL COMPLICATIONS OF SOAP OPERAS are almost beyond explanation. Above is ‘Woman In White.’ Karen Adams (right) divorced Dr. Kirk Harding (left) because he had gotten her sister-in-law, Janet (on death-bed above), with illegitimate child.
from the American magazine Life of 27th April 1942
a television or radio drama serial dealing typically with daily events in the lives of the same group of characters
The soap element of the name comes from the fact that the early sponsors of such serials on US radio were often soap manufacturers.
The opera part refers to the scale of dramatic incident that happens in these programs. It is an echo of the earlier horse opera, denoting a Western film and, later, a Western television series. In this sense, horse opera is attested in 1923, but the term had been in use since the first half of the 19th century to denote an entertainment featuring horses.
The term soap opera apparently post-dates soap tragedy, first recorded in Those Radio Soap Tragedies, an article by Charles A. Maddry, minister of the Avondale Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, published in The Christian Century of August 1938:
I call them the “soap tragedies”—though a few of them are lard, bean and flour tragedies—because it is by the grace of soap I am allowed to shed tears for these characters who suffer so much from life.
The Rotarian of July 1940 published Can US Radio Regulate Itself? No!, in which Paul Hutchinson, managing editor of The Christian Century, wrote:
Have you ever listened to the day-time programs? Unfortunately, most of the readers of The Rotarian have not done much daylight listening. I hadn’t either until I landed in bed for a six-month stay about two years ago. Well, if you want to plumb the depths of human drippiness—to use a word which my collegiate daughters find expressive—I dare you to spend a week, just one week, listening in on radio’s morning soap tragedies. It is in them that the advertising evil plumbs the depths. The programs change every quarter of an hour, and in most cases the announcer’s palaver runs for about four out of the 15 minutes. But even that unctuous “Ladies, do you know…” is not so inane as the stuff that follows.
The first known instance of soap opera is found in Newsweek of 13th November 1939:
Transcontinental bubbled up out of the “soap operas”—daytime serial dramas bringing the hard-working housewife the Real Life adventures of Real People.
The American magazine Life of 27th April 1942 published Soap Operas and Freaks: Daytime serials are sad, which contains the following:
Radio has a wonderful diversity. It has freak programs, like ‘Go Get It’ whose contestants are sent on whimsical quests. It has intellectual forums like ‘Round Table’ on which college professors are featured. It also has soap operas.
Soap operas, so called because many sponsors sell soap, are 15-minute daytime serials aimed at housewives. Some people call them “washboard weepers.” Their central figure is usually a noble woman who tries to straighten out other people’s troubles. Nobody ever knew the trouble a soap-opera heroine sees. The episodes are drenched in tears, agonies, complicated misunderstandings. Yet Sandra Michael, author of the soap opera ‘Against The Storm,’ was given the University of Georgia Peabody Award this year for her excellent work and for instilling a new spirit into daytime dramas.
It wasn’t long before soap opera was used figuratively to denote any unlikely, convoluted or emotional story. The earliest known use is in The Lady in the Lake (1944), by the American novelist Raymond Chandler (1888-1959):
She packed up and went down the same night. I didn’t see her again. I don’t want to see her again. I haven’t heard a word from Muriel in the whole month, not a single word. I don’t have any idea at all where’s she’s at. With some other guy, maybe. I hope he treats her better than I did. [...] Thanks for listening to the soap opera.
The abbreviated form soap is first recorded in Are Soap Operas Only Suds? Twenty million women listen to the serials daily and in them find a world of dreams. Is the effect good or bad?, by the American author and book critic John K. Hutchens (1905-95), published in The New York Times Magazine of 28th March 1943:
Not all the “soaps” are so dolorous, and not all of them are produced as by a machine.
The abbreviation soapies is first recorded in 1964 in a story by Frederik Pohl (1919-2013), American writer of science fiction, published in Galaxy Magazine:
You had a nervous breakdown the year after your discharge, space cafard, as they call it on the soapies. Yellow fever is what we called it on the Moon.
Its recognised singular is soapie rather than soapy. The New York Times of 1st July 1974 had, in the Morning Afternoon Evening Cable TV column:
“Daughters Courageous” (1939). The Lane Sisters, John Garfield, Claude Rains. A soapie, granted. And dated. But pleasantly cheerful.