Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Story of "Boondoggle": A Useful Word for Useless Work

For the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I explored the peculiar origins of the word boondoggle, which took a strange trip from the world of Boy Scouts to the world of politics 80 years ago.

The word exploded on the scene on April 3, 1935, at a committee hearing of New York City's Board of Aldermen, investigating the city's Emergency Relief Bureau. The committee heard from a witness named Robert Marshall, who explained that people on relief were taught to make things from leather and canvas called boondoggles. The committee chairman asked Marshall to explain this "outlandish" word:

"Boon doggles is simply a term applied back in pioneer days to...things men and boys do that are useful in their everyday operations or recreations or about their home."
"Named for Daniel Boone?"
"No...It is boon doggles. It is spelled differently."

The aldermen found the testimony ludicrous, but newspaper reporters had a field day with it. The city's leading papers, the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, both splashed front-page articles about the committee hearing, singling out the teaching of "boon-doggling" as well as "eurhythmic dance."

The story went out on wire services across the country, and soon everyone knew about how New York's relief program budget was being spent on boondoggles. It didn't take long for the meaning of the word to shift into a kind of metaphor for useless work. And when it got picked up by opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, the silly-sounding word boondoggle became emblematic for wasteful government spending.

A Republican National Committee pamphlet published in late 1935, "Roosevelt the Waster," pinned the word boondoggle firmly to Roosevelt and his administration:

President Roosevelt — spendthrift — with your money! He has devised more new and useless ways of wasting money than anyone ever before thought of. One is boondoggle.
Boondoggling is a comparatively new word on the American tongue. It is "Frankly Destructive" Roosevelt's pet way of wasting money. It turned the so-called New Deal into an ordeal...
Boondoggling first was known best in New York. Now the entire country knows of the utterly ridiculous and fantastic ways in which Mr. Roosevelt throws away your money.

Roosevelt, for his part, tried to salvage the word in a January 1936 speech in Newark, N.J.:

There is a grand word that is going around, "boondoggling"... If we can boondoggle ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for many years to come.

And on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson (D-Arkansas) went even further, tying the word to Daniel Boone (even though that etymology had been shot down at the New York committee hearing):

"The word 'boondoggle' means a useful work, and it had its origin in the name of that sturdy American woodsman, Daniel Boone, who certainly knew as much about practical, useful things as the advertising writers now employed by the Republican National Committee and the miscalled American Liberty League." Boone had apparently made a "toggle" out of leather straps in order to tie his rifle on his head when swimming across a stream, thus keeping his gunpowder dry.
—Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism

We can safely say that boondoggle had nothing to do with Daniel Boone, and journalists at the time managed to piece together the actual etymology. The New York Herald Tribune doggedly pursued the story, checking with Dr. Frank H. Vizetelly, editor of Funk & Wagnalls dictionaries, immediately after the committee hearing that popularized the word. "I spent about an hour looking for the thing and had no luck," Dr. Vizetelly told the Herald Tribune. "I felt sure that if there ever had been such a word it would have been used in the time of our old friend... Andrew Jackson."

A few days later, on April 6, 1935, the Herald Tribune reported that the coinage of boondoggle was definitively explained in the March 1930 issue of Scouting, a magazine published by the Boy Scouts of America. (A copy of the magazine had been sent anonymously to the newspaper.) The article credits a Rochester, N.Y. scoutmaster, Robert H. Link, with coining the word in advance of the World Scouting Jamboree held in England in August 1929. At the Jamboree, the Rochester scouts presented colorful "boondoggles" made of plaited leather to the VIPs in attendance, including Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement, and Edward, the Prince of Wales.

The Herald Tribune then tracked down Mr. Link, who gave them the inside scoop on how he came up with boondoggle:

Robert H. Link said today that he was the one who originated the word "boondoggle," which caused an uproar in the New York City Aldermanic hearing on unemployment relief last week.
Mr. Link said that when his son, Robert H. jr., was born in 1926, the word popped into his head as soon as he saw the faintly squirming, wrinkly infant. "Boondoggle," said Mr. Link on that occasion and "Boondoggle" Robert H. jr. has been ever since.
—"New-Born Baby Inspired The Word 'Boondoggle': Scoutmaster's Name for Son Passed on to Handicraft," New York Herald Tribune, Apr. 8, 1935, p. 1.

So did boondoggle really come about because Scoutmaster Link thought it was an appropriate nickname for his newborn child? The story seems awfully fanciful, but there's still no evidence of the word's usage before the Rochester scouts introduced it to the 1929 Jamboree. An article in the British humor magazine Punch, reporting on the Jamboree, called boondoggle "a word to conjure with." Little did they know how true that would turn out to be, especially when it entered the American political lexicon.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Saturday September 26th 2015, 2:07 AM
Comment by: Ken M.
I was born in October of 1941 of a father who graduated at Dartmouth in 1935. Likely from him I came to understand that a boondoggle was a useless activity or an ill conceived activity with no intended purpose or outcome.
Sunday September 27th 2015, 10:59 PM
Comment by: Christine E. (KY)
Listened to Lexicon Valley podcast on this tonight. Very interesting, but I was curious about the relationship between boondoggle and boondocks. Are they related terms?
Monday September 28th 2015, 2:05 PM
Comment by: Anonymous
Christine: The resemblance of boondoggle to boondocks is coincidental. Boondocks comes from the Tagalog word bundok meaning "mountain." It entered English during the American colonization of the Philippines in the early 20th century, but it didn't start becoming part of common usage until the '40s. So unless Scoutmaster Link had spent time stationed in the Philippines, I doubt he could have been influenced by the word.
Monday January 18th 2016, 2:02 AM
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Saturday July 23rd 2016, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Eduardo José (Colombia)
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