boondoggle / woggle
This term meaning a useless task or wasteful endeavor is of uncertain origin, although it is probably related to the word woggle, a term for a Boy Scout’s neckerchief fastener. Boondoggle shares this meaning of a neckerchief fastener or slide in Boy Scout circles and this is likely the original sense of the word.
Woggle makes its appearance in 1923 among scouts in Britain. From The Scout, 9 June 1923:
Wear a scarf woggle.
Robert Baden-Powell uses woggle in his 1929 edition of Scouting for Boys, where the 1928 edition had used ring. Some claim that woggle was coined in imitation of the American boondoggle, although the American term is not attested to until a few years later.1 An alternative explanation is that woggle is related to toggle, the original meaning of which is a pin used to keep a rope in place on shipboard. This sense of toggle dates to the mid-18th century.2
American scoutmaster, Robert Link of Rochester, NY, claimed to have coined boondoggle as a nickname for his son c.1925. Link said he applied the word boondoggle to a neckerchief slide in 1929. Link’s claim, however, is not substantiated by evidence other than the dates being consistent with known usage. While it may be true, we cannot know for sure. He first made the claim of coinage in 1935, after the term had gained widespread use.
The earliest known appearance of boondoggle in print is from Punch, 14 August 1929:
THE CHIEF SCOUT has recently been presented by the University of Liverpool with a Degree, and by the scouts of America with a boondoggle. Of the two, I think I should prefer the boondoggle. Great as is the honour conferred by the Seat of Learning, there is a homely flavour about the other gift which touches the heart even more.
“Boondoggle.” It is a word to conjure with, to roll around the tongue; an expressive word to set the fancy moving in strange and comforting channels; and it rhymes with “goggle,” “boggle,” and “woggle.” three of the most lighthearted words in the English language.
It sounds like the crooning of a mother to her child; like the bubbling of a brook to a thirsty traveller [sic]; above all, it sounds like forty-two nations extracting fifty thousand brace of cheerful feet from the particular brand of mud enjoyed at Arrow Park.
When you ask the American Scouts about the boondoggle they slowly move their gum from one cheek to the other before they answer. And it is like that too.3
The word first appears in the American Press in the New York Times on 4 April 1935:
“Boon doggles” is simply a term applied back in the pioneer days to what we call gadgets today.
A 4 October 1935 citation from the Chicago Tribune explains how the sense shifted from gadget to wasteful effort:
To the cowboy it meant the making of saddle trappings out of odds and ends of leather, and they boondoggled when there was nothing else to do on the ranch.4
Despite what these citations say, there is no evidence that boondoggle had any currency among cowboys or on the American frontier. The term’s origin is probably in Boy Scout circles in the 1920s and the cowboy explanation was invented to explain the term and give it some panache.
1935 saw an explosion in use of the term and the modern senses, both noun and verb, to mean a wasteful effort. That year also saw the appearance of variant forms like boondoogler and boondoogling. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes wrote in his diary in that year:
I am for substantial, worth-while, and socially desirable public works, while Hopkins is for what has come to be known as boondoggling.5
It is likely that the rapid growth of the federal government during the New Deal years, along with the waste that attends such government projects, created a need that this word filled nicely.
1”The Origins of the Woggle,"Feb 2008, Scout Information Centre, accessed 29 Dec 2008 <http://www.scoutbase.org.uk/library/hqdocs/facts/pdfs/fs145003.pdf>.
3Stephen Goranson, “Boondoggle (1929),” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 1 Sep 2007.
4Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 240.
5OED2, boondoggle, n. and v., <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50025134>.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton