In the latter half of the 19th century, the word huckleberry came to denote a fellow or man in American slang. It was usually used as term of affection to a friend, but could denote a foolish or incompetent person as well. Sometimes it was used to mean a person particularly well-suited to a job or task, often in phrases like I’m your huckleberry.
The sense meaning a general person or fellow dates to 1868. From the New England Base Ballist of 3 September of that year:
Now then, my huckleberry, look sharp! you’re wrong!
The sense meaning an incompetent person follows a bit later in 1889 when Mark Twain wrote the following in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
Sir Persant of Inde is competent intelligent, courteous, and in every way a brick...Sir Palamides the Saracen is no huckleberry himself.
Huckleberry was probably first used this way because a huckleberry, while sweet and tasty, is also small and something of little consequence. The word is often used in an affectionate but condescending manner. There is an older sense of the word meaning a small amount. Paulding’s Westward Ho!, written in 1832, includes the line:
[I once got] within a huckleberry of being smothered to death.
Literally, a huckleberry is a fruit of Gaylussacia (N.O. Vacciniaceæ), a North American plant. Sometimes the word is applied to the fruit more commonly known as a blueberry. The origin is not known for certain, but it may be a corruption of hurtleberry or whortleberry, names given to the related genus Vaccinium, which contains blueberries (V. corymbosum) and cranberries (V. Oxycoccos). The term dates to 1670, when it appears in Daniel Denton’s A Brief Description of New York:
The Fruits natural to the Island are Mulberries, Posimons, Grapes great and small, Huckelberries.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton