A galoot is an awkward and not-too-intelligent person. It’s often used in affectionate deprecation; you might call a friend “a big galoot.” But most people would be surprised to find that the word has an origin in Royal Navy slang and that it is associated with a man who is perhaps the most colorful lexicographer in history.
Galoot is a mildly offensive term that originally referred to a marine or soldier on board ship, much like a modern sailor might use jarhead. Etymologist Anatoly Liberman points to the thirteenth century Italian galeot(t)o, “sailor, steersman,” as a possible source for galoot. The Italian word spread to other languages as well as continuing into Modern Italian, acquiring some additional senses like “galley slave,” “convict,” and “pimp” along the way. Liberman suggests the proximate origin is the Middle Dutch galioot. Liberman notes that the problem with his proposed etymology is a gap of several centuries between the Middle Dutch and the word’s 1808 appearance in English. That gap is not necessarily disqualifying, as slang terms often have a long sub rosa existence before appearing in print, but it does work against the hypothesis to some degree.
Another proposed etymology, but one that is almost certainly wrong, is that it comes from the Krio adjective galut, which is applied to people and means “large.” Krio is an English-based creole spoken in Sierra Leone. And Fyle and Jones’s A Krio-English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1980) gives the etymology as a borrowing from English into Krio, not the other way around.
The word’s first English language appearance is in an 1808 poem, The Cruise: A Poetical Sketch, by A Naval Officer, where it seems to refer to a new sailor, a landlubber:
For Men-of-war, an absolute Galoot
Raw from the country, had been full as good
Following this, Galoot appears throughout the first half of the nineteenth century in various books and papers concerning the Royal Navy. In the 1860s, galoot gained a foothold in America, where it became a popular epithet among soldiers fighting the Civil War. Mark Twain, for example, uses it in his 1871 Roughing It:
He could lam any galoot of his inches in America. [He could thrash any man of his own size in America.]
It is in America that galoot loses its association with the navy and marines and acquired the current, general sense that we know today.
The colorful lexicographer who is associated with the word is James Hardy Vaux (1782–1841?), who in 1812 compiled the Vocabulary of the Flash Language, a glossary of London slang. That glossary is notable because it is one of the first dictionaries compiled in Australia and because of Vaux’s somewhat notorious biography. For a long time, this glossary was the earliest known record of the word galoot. Vaux, a former sailor and legal clerk, was convicted of stealing a handkerchief and sentenced to seven years in the penal colony of Australia, arriving down under in 1801. He returned to England in 1807, returning to a life of crime and marrying a prostitute. Two years later was convicted of stealing from a jeweler’s shop and sent to Australia for life. During this second stint in Australia he wrote and had published his memoirs and the slang dictionary. He married again in 1818; the fate of his first wife is unknown. Vaux was pardoned in 1820, remaining in Australia for several years. He remarried again in 1827; committing bigamy as his second wife was still alive. He eventually found his way to Ireland, where in 1830 he was convicted of passing forged bank notes and sent to Australia yet again—making him the only person known to have been transported to Australia three times. In 1837 he was released from the penal colony and settled in Sydney. But two years later he was convicted of assaulting an eight-year-old girl. Vaux was released from prison in 1841 and disappeared. Unmentioned here are his numerous escape attempts and desertions from Royal Navy ships. Vaux undoubtedly picked up the term during one of his stints as a sailor.
Averil F. Fink, “Vaux, James Hardy,” Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1967, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vaux-james-hardy-2756
“galoot, n.,” Historical Dictionary of American Slang, vol. 1, 1994.
“galoot, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Anatoly Liberman, ”Advice to the Etymologist: Never Lose Heart, or, The Origin of the Word Galoot,” OUPblog, 23 July 2008.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton