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Why Do We Say That?

May 2024
1min read


A gazetteer of mythical America would be sprinkled with such picturesque placenames as Buzzardsborough, Crow Corners, East Punkinton, Gopherville, Mudville (where mighty Casey struck out), and Weazletown, all of them indicating small towns or boondocks. ( Boondocks , by the way, is a relic of the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1902, when U.S. troops pursued rebels into the hills and jungles; the word comes from bundok , Tagalog for “mountain.")

Perhaps no name would appear more often in such a gazetteer than Podunk. A byword for more than 150 years for a small and insignificant place, it still crops up regularly. “On the Campaign Trail from Podunk to D.C.” was the title of a forum at the annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association in Dallas this past August.

Whence Podunk? Whereas Buzzardsborough and the others were made up with tongue in cheek, imitating the quaint folk names that adorn the land, such as Skunk’s Misery
(the original name of Scranton, Pennsylvania) and California’s Jackass Flat (so called on account of a burro that was flattened there in 1885 by a locomotive), Podunk is a true place-name. An Algonquian term, translated variously as “a boggy place” and “a neck or corner of land,” it was attached to various localities in colonial times in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. Historically, it is associated most closely with a small tribe, the Podunks, whose principal villages in the seventeenth century were situated a few miles northeast of Hartford, in the area still watered by the Podunk River, a tributary of the Connecticut.

In the 184Os wits started using Podunk to poke fun at small towns. A series of eight “Letters From Podunk” began appearing in the Buffalo, New York, Daily National Pilot on January 5, 1846. The grandiloquent opening of the initial letter gives the flavor of the whole:

“Messrs. Editors: I hear you ask, ‘Where in the world is Podunk?’ It is in the world, sir; and more than that is a little world of itself. ... a bright and shining light amid the surrounding darkness. I look back, sir, with pride upon the day when I located in the then unincorporated burgh of Podunk.... Here I began my career as master of the arts and.... Here, too, I courted the smiles of dame Fortune, and of fairer Dolly Miles— the former I won easily, and Dolly, after I had ‘sparked’ her every night for two years ... at last acknowledged herself unable to withstand some feeling verses which told at once the story of my passion and my love.”

The anonymous author’s brand of humor must have been popular at the time, for the “Letters From Podunk” were reprinted widely and seem to have been chiefly responsible for establishing the term in the national psyche. And so it is that the name has been appropriated for everything from a fictitious university to a rock band, and that Father Tom Reese, editor of the Jesuit publication America , can be quoted in the Los Angeles Times of March 27, 2002, as saying of Cardinal Roger M. Mahoney of Los Angeles, “He’s not the pastor of a Podunk Parish.”

—Hugh Rawson

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