Date: Sat, 27 Dec 1997 16:28:00 EST From: AAllan 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 Utopia. - Allan Metcalf