8

Even for a country well accustomed to foreign policy boondoggles, it was an impressive body count. Eighty Americans, eight Brits, eight Germans — no French because they'd been boycotting Western diplomatic functions in Cairo.
The Brethren By John Grisham

I can safely say I have never come across boondoggle before, I guessed it meant complicated, esoteric maneuvers of sorts. Dictionary.com says: a project funded by the federal government out of political favoritism that is of no real value to the community or the nation.

Online Etymology Dictionary provides further information

boondoggle (n.) 1935, American English, of uncertain origin, popularized during the New Deal as a contemptuous word for make-work projects for the unemployed. Said to have been a pioneer word for "gadget;" it also was by 1932 a Boy Scout term for a kind of woven braid.

  • If boondoggle was originally a name for a gadget could dongle be derived from it? Which Dictionary.com defines: Also called wireless adapter. A word that was coined in 1985 or thereabouts.

  • Could boondoggle be considered a blend word composed of boon + doggle?

The only definitions I found for doggle was an affectionate term for a small dog and a child's marble. Nevertheless, it does sound like a name for a knot and an easy one to master but perhaps I'm influenced by doddle, a BrEng term meaning a very easy task.

  • Or a nonce word?

A nonce word is a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate problem of communication. The term is used because such a word is created "for the nonce" and is thus "an invented or accidental linguistic form, used only once"
Wikipedia

But if John Grisham used it in his 2000 novel, I am inclined to believe it must be a well-established term in American English. One that many Americans must be familiar with.

  • So how would linguists define the word boondoggle?
  • And I would also like to know how common is boondoggle and whether it is used outside of politics.
  • 2
    I’ve only heard it as a verb, but it’s definitely a well-established term. The OED says etymology obscure—it has this from Word Study (2 Sept 1935): “Boondoggle was coined for another purpose by Robert H. Link of Rochester. Through his connection with scouting the word later came into general use as a name given to the braided leather lanyard made and worn by Boy Scouts”; but also this from the Chicago Tribune (4 Oct 1935): “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”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 7 '15 at 18:18
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    -1 This question is a boondoggle. At 25K rep I'd expect you to exhaust all online resources before asking here. – Frank Mar 7 '15 at 18:21
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    @Frank Research requirements do not increase proportionally to rep count. Both the OED and Etymonline, the two standard online works for etymology, have ‘origin unknown’ for both boondoggle and dongle (OED only; Etymonline doesn’t have that one at all). Actual (spoken) usage of a word within a specific community is not something you can easily find online, either. There’s not much more research that could be done without the question also becoming the answer. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 7 '15 at 18:24
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    I suspect it's pertinent that OED's first citation (also 1935, so it agrees with the Online Etymology Dictionary), is from R. Marshall in N.Y. Times 4 Apr. 2 - ‘Boon doggles’ is simply a term applied back in the pioneer days to what we call gadgets today. The implication of "pioneer days" is that at least R. Marshall thought the usage predated the Boy Scout movement. – FumbleFingers Mar 7 '15 at 18:36
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    @Frank Etymology is part of the question, I quoted from Etymonline, I wanted to understand how it was formed e.g. boon + doggle; if it was a name for a gadget e.g. I asked about dongle, AND if it's commonly used. Why do users consider the title to be the "only" focus? If one reads the Wikipedia article on nonce there are examples of nonce words that have become well-established. – Mari-Lou A Mar 7 '15 at 18:50
8

I hear it a lot, so I'd say in the USA at least it's a fairly common word.

The context is usually either corporate or political.

In a corporate setting, this usually refers to some corporate event that seems (to the speaker) to be a waste of the company's money for participants' benefit (eg: stopping work for some kind of "leadership training" or "team building exercise", sending employees to a conference at a ski resort or tropical resort).

In a political setting it's similar. It's usually used in one of two ways. The first is to describe a taxpayer-funded trip (often termed a "fact-finding mission") of dubious value. I also hear it a lot to describe a government program that the speaker feels is a big waste of money.

  • Yeah, the meaning I've always gotten from it's use (since probably the early 60s) is that a "boondoggle" is a waste of taxpayer/company money to benefit an (already privileged) individual. – Hot Licks Mar 8 '15 at 2:26
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    Incidentally, the more specific term for the kind of "fact-finding mission" you mentioned is "Junket". Not that it isn't also a boondoggle. – Brian Hitchcock Mar 8 '15 at 2:35
8

World Wide Words defines boondoggle as:

  • the typically North American term for an unnecessary or wasteful project that is often applied in two specific ways:

    • to describe work of little or no value done merely to appear busy,
    • in reference to a government-funded project with no purpose other than political patronage. It can also be used for an unnecessary journey by a government official at public expense.

As for its origin it says:

  • Part of its oddity lies in its sudden emergence into public view in an article in the New York Times on 4 April 1935. This had the headline “$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play ... Boon Doggles Made”. The “boon doggles” of the headline turn out to be small items of leather, rope and canvas, which were being crafted by the jobless during the Great Depression as a form of make-work. The article quoted a person who taught the unemployed to create them that the word was “simply a term applied back in the pioneer days to what we call gadgets today”. He suggested that boondoggles had been small items of leatherwork which were made by cowboys on idle days as decorations for their saddles.

Regarding its early usage and further evidence of its origin:

  • The word instantly became famous. It seems that Americans had been feeling the lack of a good word to describe unnecessary, wasteful, or fraudulent projects and leapt upon it with delight. It had actually been around for some years, though attracting little notice. The first appearance of the word currently known is this, reporting the visit of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) to the World Boy Scouts Jamboree at Birkenhead, across the River Mersey from Liverpool:*

    • The Prince also wore around his scout hat a “boondoggle,” which is a bright leather braided lanyard worn much in the manner of the hat cord used by the United States Army. (New York Herald Tribune, 3 Aug 1929.)
  • A more expansive mention appeared in a British publication later in the month:

    • 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. (Punch, 14 Aug. 1929)
  • The Daily Messenger of Canandaigua, New York, explained the background to this puzzling item on 20 August 1931:

    • The boondoggle, which leaped literally into fame overnight when it was introduced by Rochester Boy Scouts at the jamboree in England, is a braided lanyard on which various things such as whistles can be hung. So fascinating do the boys find it, that they have spent practically all their spare time on the work.
  • This is confirmed by a report of a scout camp the following year, which also suggests a broader meaning for the word as a type of leatherwork:

    • Several thousand yards of boondoggle material have also been stocked in the craftshop to meet the demand of scouts for making lanyards, whistles, cards, bells, hatbands, neckerchief slides, a craft which last year consumed over 3000 yards of imitation leather braid. (Oakland Tribune, 29 May 1932.)
  • On 6 April 1935, two days after the New York Times article appeared, a contrary view about the origin of the word was published in a syndicated snippet in the Nevada State Journal:

    • “The word ‘boondoggle’ was coined out of the blue sky by Robert H. Link, eagle scout,” wrote Hastings. “It has absolutely no significance except that it has come to mean a good-looking addition to the uniform.”

According to this final source, the more reliable origin is the scouting context, rather than the Cowboys of the pioneer days:

  • Mr Link, later a scoutmaster, was also said to have been its originator in an item in a magazine called Word Study later the same year. He is now often quoted in reference works as its inventor. As all the early appearances of boondoggle — none before 1929 — are in connection with Scouts’ lanyards, it is indeed likely that it was created in that milieu. The stories about cowboys and pioneer days have nothing going for them apart from the guesses of one person reported in the 1935 New York Times article. It was that article that converted boondoggle from a word existing quietly in its own small world to one of public importance and continuing usefulness.

(from world wide words)

8

If the Boy Scout etymology is true, I suspect that this word may ultimately derive from toggle:

boon (benefit, good) + toggle ("pin passed through the eye of a rope, strap, or bolt to hold it in place")

And it would look something like those seen in this image from Pinterest:

boondoggles

This is the sort of crafts project undertaken by scouts in which they created some marginally useful object, thereby learning skills and patience. Adults who did "real" work would have contempt for such endeavors, however, if they were undertaken by other adults. Hence the pejorative context during the New Deal.

I can tell you from my own experience that in the 1980s my colleagues at the advertising agency I worked for referred to any project that got one "out on production" (i.e., to New York or L.A. where most of the production work was performed by hired talent) as a boondoggle. The implication here was that it was a free vacation with varying amounts of responsibility. Nobody had to explain the term then, and it was readily understood by anyone who encountered it.

  • I used to make trinkets looking exactly like those above. I also learned from other girls around me at school and at summer camp. We made them by weaving slightly elastic, flat, plastic cord together. – vidget Mar 7 '15 at 18:30
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I found 143 cases of boondoggle in the COCA corpus. Since that corpus consists of 450 million words, 143 is a relatively low occurrence. I would say that the word is indeed uncommon. For the sake of comparison I will mention that brouhaha had 211 hits and shenanigans 420.

A quick look at the results confirms that the overwhelming majority is in a political context but there are a very few that might (I can't tell from the COCA results) not be directly related to politics:

? Can they attach O.J. Simpsons right to publicity, or is this just another boondoggle a lawyer put in Fred Goldmans head? RANDY-ZELIN-DEFEN: Its not going to work

Even such examples as those, however, have a whiff of politics to them. This is confirmed when looking at the word's occurrences by section:

enter image description here

As you can see in the image above, the word is most often used by newspapers. Also note that a lot of the spoken word sources of COCA are from TV shows, in the analytical results, one can see that the word appears in the transcripts of such political shows as CNN Event or PBS Newshour, once more confirming its political bent.

In conclusion, the word seems to be well enough known, if uncommon and is indeed far more often used in the context of politics.

  • I have the distinct impression quite a few American politicians like using "quirky, dialectal" expressions that aren't actually part of their "natural" vocabulary. British politicians usually get roundly ridiculed by the media if they succumb to the temptation to adopt a style which I imagine is intended to present the speaker as "folksy, one of us, ordinary person". But if they persevere long enough, we the general public eventually get so used to their odd turns of phrase we might even start using them (again) ourselves. – FumbleFingers Mar 7 '15 at 20:17
  • The OJ example is quite interesting, in that (IIUC) it puts forth a quite different meaning. If they had successfully "attached" OJ's "right to publicity" it could have been a moneymaker, not a money-loser. In legal parlance, "attach" means to put a lien on, meaning they would have had a right to any earnings from, say, a book (which OJ did in fact later write). – Brian Hitchcock Mar 8 '15 at 2:42
  • The COCA corpus also lists just 3 instances of boondoggling over the period that it covers (1990–2012); but a Google Books search for the years 1990–2008 yields 145 matches for that (relatively unusual) word, very few of which appear to be duplicates. Likewise, COCA yields no instances of boondoggled, boondoggler, or boondogglers for the period 1990–2012, while Google Books finds 41, 17, and 36 seemingly nonduplicate matches for these terms for the period 1990–2008. I don't know why the COCA corpus shows so few matches for these terms, but I suspect it handles boondoggle similarly. – Sven Yargs Mar 9 '15 at 2:17
  • Here's the link for the Ngram-based Google Books search results if you're interested in seeing the matches it turns up for various members of the boondoggle family. In the results, boondoggle is far from rare. – Sven Yargs Mar 9 '15 at 2:25
  • @BrianHitchcock: I don't think this is a different meaning. I think the use of "boondoggle" here is asking about the possibility that "attaching OJ's right to publicity" is a worthless legal strategy, which a lawyer convinced Goldman to pursue just so that the lawyer could bill Goldman for more work. In other words, the strategy isn't going to make money, and Goldman is being swindled. This seems to fit perfectly with the usual definition of boondoggle as "an unnecessary or wasteful project". – Nate Eldredge Mar 30 '15 at 16:40
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In general, Josh61’s answer provides very strong factual background on the emergence of boondoggle as a term that is now used to characterize wasteful projects or expenditures or unproductive employment (often in connection with the government). However, I wanted to add a few references that fill out the picture of usage in 1935 and before.


A neckerchief well boondoggled

With regard to the possible Boy Scout origin of the term, one historian of the Boy Scouts asserts that “Boon Doggle” originally referred not to a lanyard but to a ring for holding a scout’s neckerchief in place. From Susan Cohen, The Scouts (2012) [combined snippets]:

Around this time, the problem of creased neckerchiefs or scarves, was resolved with the creation of the 'woggle' by Bill Shankley, an eighteen-year-old campsite employee at Gilwell Park, in the 1920s. The British ring, through which the scarf was threaded, was a version of the American ‘Boon Doggle’, and was made of fine leather strips plaited in a knot. It was officially approved for general use by the committee of the Scout Movement Council in July 1923.

If the “woggle” was indeed approved under that name for general use by the [British] Scout Movement Council in July 1923, that suggests that the American equivalent “Boon Doggle” may have been known as such even earlier.

Another citation of a very early source occurs in Geoge Stimpson, A Book About American Politics (1952) [combined snippets]:

In 1935 a movie actor named Guy Kib[b]ee thought the people in the Ozarks called gadgets made of discarded materials boondoggles because Daniel Boone whiled away idle hours whittling out toys for his dog to play with. Robert H. Link, a former Boy Scout of Rochester, New York, said in the same year that he had nicknamed his son “Boondoggle” when he was born in 1926. Link thought his use of the word was responsible for its adoption by the Boy Scouts during the Jamboree in England in 1929. An unidentified writer in the March, 1930, issue of Scouting said: "Boon-doggles are like old-type lanyards. They are made of plaited leather. Scouts have been making them for years for uniform ornaments all over the world."


Boondoggling becomes political

The original report of the New York City Aldermanic Committee, “In the Matter of the Investigation of the Administration of Unemployment Relief in the City of New York” is dated July 8, 1935, although the witnesses called by the committee testified between October 16, 1934, and March 2, 1935. Evidently portions of the testimony reached the press well before the report's July 8, 1935, publication date, since the watershed New York Times article based on its findings appeared (as Josh61 notes) on April 4, 1935. In any event, boondoggling came up in a single brief instance in the report:

Boondoggling: Mr. Marshall, of Massachusetts

Another training specialist who testified was Robert Marshall, of Springfield, Massachusetts. He is the gentleman who gave this investigation, and the world, boondoggling, a subject taught in his branch of the recreational school. There are 150 relief workers who come to this branch of the school to be taught various craft activities.

In a letter to Forum magazine (July 1936) [combined snippets] in response to an article by H.G. Leach titled “In Praise of Boon-Doggling,” Joseph E. Kinsley, Vice-Chairman of the Aldermanic Committee for the Investigation of Relief in New York City said this:

I have just read the editorial foreword in the June issue [of Forum] with great interest.

I must however, register an emphatic protest against the utter misconception of the problem which this foreword discloses. “Boon-doggling” is not an epithet invented by the Aldermanic Committee investigating relief, its counsel, nor the newspapers. It is a word used by the witness, in charge of this division of relief activities, who claimed that it was an old Western term applied to practical gadgets. This definition was discarded even by those most familiar with the history of the Western pioneers. It developed that it was a young Boy Scout’s word used to describe articles made by himself. “Boon-doggling” was thereafter popularly applied to the varied wasteful activities which the investigation disclosed. We make no attack on "boon-doggling" in its narrow sense, if "boon-doggling" is necessary to provide work for those on the relief rolls, but we do attack it as a symbol of what a wasteful social-service cult has foisted on these unfortunate people…

Outside the world of scouting, however, the term boondoggle appears to have been virtually unknown prior to the New York Times article on the Aldermanic Committee findings, as appears from the many published comments in 1935 and 1936 regarding the novelty of the term, which in any case very quickly acquired its sense of (first) a nonessential and (soon afterward) a wasteful undertaking.

For example, from Carter Anderson, How to Locate Educational Information and Data: A Text and Reference Book (1935):

  1. Where can I find the meaning and proper use of a very recently introduced word like "gadget" or "boon-doggle"?

From Samuel Smith, The Command of Words (1935) [snippet]:

Again, the Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary is immensely hospitable to new words and coinages. We may expect to see in the next edition such neologisms as 'boon-doggles,' 'gertrudesteining,' and 'Ogden-Nashery.' The pages of this

The Boggle Industry,” in Life magazine (1936) [combined snippets] not only notes the non–Boy Scout meaning of the term but suggests that a short-lived short form of boondoggle (boggle) was in use by 1936:

It isn’t in the dictionaries yet, but future editions will doubtless carry such entry as; “Boondoggle, v. to putter or dilly-dally. Specifically to spend time and money on apparently useless tasks, usually at public expense. Such as: painting funny faces on mothballs.” And that would stand as a reasonably accurate definition of boon-doggling as it is today.

Billions must be spent putting people to work, but it must be work that won't interfere with private industry. The result is a fantastic array of rather odd budget items—$14,762 for a lily pond at Placerville, Cal., $1300 for "advisers'' in the Stockton public library, $2712 for a tree census in Harrisburg, Penn.—and so on.

There are lots of boon-doggles—or boggles, for short—and WPA turns out brand new ones every day.


One man’s boondoggle is another man’s scoubidou

As a final comment on the term, I note this interesting entry for boondoggle from Paul Dickson, Words From the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents (2013):

BOONDOGGLE. A word that has come to mean work or activity that is wasteful or pointless but gives the appearance of having value. The word was not coined by Franklin D. Roosevelt but it was made famous by him on January 18, 1936, when he made some informal extemporaneous remarks to the New Jersey State Emergency Council in reference to the programs of the New Deal. “There is a grand word that is going around, ‘boondoggle.’ It is a pretty good word. 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.”

The word boondoggle isn’t enshrined in the hearts of the American people in quite the grateful way that Roosevelt had hoped. But as Eugene Reybold, Chief of Engineers of the U.S. War Department, wrote in “America’s Waterways in the War Effort,” Marine News (1942) [combined snippets], yesterday’s boondoggle can be today’s vital infrastructure upgrade:

I have described how today—in contrast to 1917—we have this fine system of waterways actually operating, actually in being. How did that come about?

Well, it didn't just happen. It was the result of a lot of careful planning, a lot of hard work, and a tremendous amount of persevering. And in the record of that work and that perseverance, the name of the National Rivers and Harbors Congress figures often and prominently. While thinking about what I could say to you here today, I leafed through some of the old reports of previous meetings of this Congress. They tell the story. Many a project endorsed in your resolutions is now playing an important part in the war. Many a project which short-sighted critics dubbed as 'pork barrel' or 'boondoggle' is now carrying the steel from which tanks and other armaments are being made. The voices of those critics are now silent. And the Nation gives thanks to those far-sighted critics who fought for projects productive of such invaluable service.

  • Coming back to this answer, I realized that the term scoubidou (wjich I mention in the final subhead above) may be unfamiliar to many readers. Wikipedia's article on that term refers to it as "a knotting craft, originally aimed at children"; other terms that Wikipedia lists for the same craft are gimp, lanyard, scoubi, scoobie, boondoggle, and rex-lace. – Sven Yargs Jun 22 '16 at 20:51

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