Date: Sat, 27 Dec 1997 16:28:00 EST


Subject: Re: Podunk

Barry is wise to raise the question of the origins of one of the most

interesting of Americanisms. Perhaps in _America in So Many Words_ we should

have explicitly credited the "pa" of _American Speech_, H.L. Mencken, for his

inspiration, in an article in _The New Yorker_ of 25 September 1948 entitled

"The Podunk Mystery." The intriguing question is, when did "Podunk" become a

generic? Barry's new citation provides further food for thought.

For those of you who don't yet have _America in So Many Words_, here's the

entry for 1846 Podunk:

It is said to have been a real place in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Long

Island, upstate New York, Michigan, and Nebraska. But only faint traces of it

still exist in the 20th century. One authentic trace is just to the northeast

of Hartford, Connecticut, where the little Podunk River appears on the map to

this day, emptying into the Connecticut. Another is a rural area some dozen

miles west of Worcester, Massachusetts, encompassing Quaboag Pond and

Quacumquasit Pond, long known to the people in the vicinity as Podunk. And for

a few years in the 19th century, a town in Nebraska officially bore the name

Podunk until the railroad came through and changed it to "Brock."

The power of Podunk to stir the American imagination was not the fame of

any such place, however, but its very obscurity. The turning point came in

1846, when "R.P.," a columnist for the Buffalo (N.Y.) Daily National Pilot,

wrote a series of eight humorous articles titled "Letters from Podunk," about

the supremely uneventful life of that mythical small town, "Podunk," "a little

world of itself . . . high up on the Big Pigeon." Whether or not R.P.

originated the notion of Podunk as the ultimate backwater town, his articles,

reprinted in other newspapers, were the means of spreading its fame across the

country. The lack of well-known geographic reference made it possible to use

Podunk as an epithet for a sleepy small town anywhere.

Podunk was a name known to New Englanders two centuries before R.P. In the

Algonquian language spoken by a tribe of Indians then living in Connecticut,

Podunk meant "a neck or corner of land." Hearing the name from those Indians,

English speakers applied it to the place where these Indians lived, the river

that ran through it, and the tribe itself. The place was small, the river was

small, and the tribe was small, making Podunk an apt choice for R.P.'s mock


- Allan Metcalf