by Karl Kurtz
In "One Person's Boondoggle, Another's Necessity," the New York Times' Michael Cooper explains the derivation of a term that now connotes wasteful governmental projects:
Before it became a bad word, “boondoggle” was an innocent, humble craft. It was the Boy Scouts of America who claimed credit for coining the word, to refer to the plaited leather lanyards that they made and wore around their necks.
That all changed on April 3, 1935, at a hearing in New York City on how New Deal relief money was being spent. A Brooklyn crafts teacher reluctantly testified that he was paid to show the jobless how to make “boon doggles.” The outcry was swift. “$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play,” trumpeted a front-page headline the next day in The New York Times. “ ‘Boon Doggles’ Made.”
A new, more sinister meaning was born, and the word came to signify government make-work, later referring to wasteful government projects in general. Critics used it to criticize scores of projects, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a longer view. “If we can boondoggle ourselves out of this Depression,” Roosevelt said, “that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come.”
William Safire's Political Dictionary says that H.L. Mencken is the one who tracked this term back to the Boy Scouts. But Safire also offers an alternative derivation that was first reported to the New York Times in 1935 by a man who had told the city's Board of Aldermen that "he was paid for teaching 'boondoggles.' Boon doggles is simply a terrm applied back in the pioneer days to what we call gadgets today...no, it is not named for Daniel Boone...it is spelled differently."
Whatever the origin of the phrase, Cooper's article nicely explains that government projects that are often derided from a distance--like current controversies over federal economic stimulus projects for an airport on an island in Alaska, a skateboard park in Rhode Island and tunnel for turtles in Florida--are viewed as popular and valuable in their local communities. He delves into the history of some Depression-era WPA projects that were derided at the time but have had long and useful lives.
The article concludes:
Robert D. Leighninger Jr., a sociologist who wrote “Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal” (South Carolina University Press, 2007), recounted the story of a Works Progress Administration official in Arizona who went off in search of boondoggles, and discovered that the towns he visited seemed to like their own projects but questioned those of their neighbors.
“I’ve been hunting all over the state for one, but everywhere I go I’m told it’s in the next county,” the official was quoted as saying in a 1936 newspaper article. “So far I haven’t been able to catch up with a real, live one.”