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Why Do We Say That?

June 2024
2min read


Generations of summer campers have whiled away rainy days plaiting leather or plastic cords into lanyards or other ornamental gadgets known as boondoggles—a harmless enough activity. In politics, though, boondoggle has become an attack term for government programs that are regarded (by the speaker or writer) as frivolous, wasteful, unnecessary, or designed to siphon off public funds for private benefit.

Of course, one person’s boon can be another’s boondoggle. Thus Dick Armey, the former House majority leader, told readers of The Wall Street Journal last November that he “was in Congress long enough to know how demonstration projects really work. For liberal spending boondoggles, they become entrenched parts of the federal government. But, on needed reforms, demonstration projects mean a quiet, obscure death.” Or as a letter writer to the Washington Post contended on January 21 this year: “NASA’s decision to cancel the Hubble telescope program to free up money for President Bush’s moonMars boondoggle is sickening.”

Boondoggle burst into the world with something of a bang, becoming an attack term immediately after its first recorded appearance in print. This occurred on April 4, 1935, in an account in The New York Times of an investigation into public-relief expenditures. Testifying the previous day before a committee of the Board of Aldermen (predecessors of today’s gender-neutral City Council), a Robert Marshall of Brooklyn said that he had been paid to teach “boon doggies.” Asked what he meant by this, he explained that “boon doggies is simply a term applied back in pioneer days to what we call gadgets today. . . . They may be making belts in leather, or maybe belts by weaving ropes, or it might be belts by working with canvas, maybe a tent or a sleeping bag.”

Mr. Marshall’s testimony, together with that of other witnesses who told of teaching tap dancing, manipulating shadow puppets, and building “A Temple of Time” (a watch and clock collection) for New York University, inspired the story’s headline, which began: $3,187,000 RELIEF IS SPENT TO TEACH JOBLESS TO PLAY , With the subhead, “ BOON DOGGLES MADE .

The word was off and running. In the next presidential election, in 1936, boondoggle was employed widely as both a noun and a verb by Republican critics of New Deal relief agencies. Boondoggling became a general term for what the GOP perceived as governmental wastefulness, and the responsible administrators were boondogglers . Nor could President Roosevelt pass this one up. He turned the word back upon the Republicans, describing international loans made under the GOP as foreign boondoggling .

Boondoggle ’s prehistory remains hidden. The word has a quintessentially American ring, like rambunctious, sockdolager , and splendiferous , all of which were popularized in the exuberantly written Davy Crockett almanacs of the 183Os. Some dictionaries credit Robert H. Link, a scoutmaster in Rochester, New York, with coining the word about 1925, as a nonsense nickname for his son, which he later extended to braided thongs. In this case, boondoggle may have been disseminated at an international scouting jamboree in England in 1929. Lacking printed examples of the word’s use before 1935, however, we don’t really know how and when it arose.

What is certain is that boondoggle has taken on a life of its own. Although usually employed in a political context, it shows commendable versatility, as evidenced by a definition that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine in May 1992: “ boondoggle n. Business trip whose location is chosen for travel/ vacation motives.”

Hugh Rawson

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