Date: Fri, 20 Feb 1998 15:30:04 +0000
From: Jim Rader jrader[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]M-W.COM
Subject: Re: canoodle [long]

Ms. Lubell--

Seeing that you sent a query about the etymology of _canoodle_ both
to this office (left on an editor's voicemail) and the list, I will
reply to both at the same time. Sorry if this is too late for your

An article by B.J. Whiting that appeared in _American Speech_ in 1945
seems to have been overlooked in the recent discussion of this word.
Whiting pointed out that the acceptance of _canoodle_ as an
Americanism in the standard dictionaries was questionable. The
English journalist George Augustus Sala, in the first cite for the
word (spelled _conoodle_) in 1859, ascribed it "to our American
cousins," though Sala had never visited the U.S. at that time and had
no direct acquaintance with American English. None of the early
evidence for the word or its derivatives in the OED is demonstrably
American. Bret Harte used the word in an 1897 story, though Harte
had not resided in the U.S. since 1878.

Merriam files have only scattered evidence for the word before the
1970's, and nothing to suggest it is an Americanism. A cite from the
1909 supplement to the _Century Dictionary_ looks British. The word
was used in the October, 1925 issue of _The American Mercury_, but
apparently in the sense "sing off-key" ("...and the sweet songs of John
McClure and Sara Teasdale, and the harsh canoodling of the Greenwich
Villagers"); this usage is a hapax as far as I can tell. _Notes &
Queries_ for Sept. 3, 1927, recorded it as "Nottingham dialect" for
"to cuddle." The word was current in Australia in 1928, to judge
from a cite from the _New South Wales Bulletin_ for Sept. 26 ("This
fuss over the possibility of the Alsatian dog canoodling with lady
dingoes annoys me. There is no wolf strain in the breed, as is
commonly supposed.") The next cite is from the Aug. 11, 1945 issue
of the AMA _Journal_ ("A canoe is not built for canoodling and
should only be taken when you want to get somewhere"); then from _The
World, the Flesh, and Father Smith_ (1945) by the British novelist
Bruce Marshall (1899-1987) ("...the best way of dealing with lovers
when found canoodling in church doors"); then from the Apr. 30, 1949
_Saturday Review_ ("Plenty of local color, ample action, drinking,
and canoodling"); then from the novel _Beat the Devil_ (1953) by the
British writer Claud Cockburn (1904-81), using the pseudonym James
Helvick ("...she...stretched out her hand to touch Dannreuther's arm.
('There was more bloody canoodling,' reported the major.)". Finally,
there are "two lovebirds canoodling in a cage" in _Animal Psychology_
(1961) by the British veterinarian R.H. Smythe.

A note in our etymology file by Harold Bender, etymologist for W34,
comes to the conclusion that the word is not an Americanism, from the
occurrence of a derivative in the novel _A Tale of Two Villages_: "I
have found in Ethel Sidgwick's "A Tale of Two Villages," N.Y. and
London, 1931, p. 214: 'She was not a bad sort, old Clo...better than
Cutler's one, the canoodly sister.' I should say, from the story,
that the word means here 'flirtatious, sentimental, soft.' The story
is written by an Englishwoman and laid in rural England, with careful
local color and vocabulary."

B.J. Whiting considered the word "at least obsolescent" in 1945,
though in a 1947 note in _American Speech_ he pointed out a couple
recent American uses of the word, one in a variant form _kidoodling_.

The word reappears strongly in the 1970's, about evenly divided
between British and American publications in our cites, and has been fairly
current ever since. It attracted the attention of Thomas Middleton,
who wrote about words in those years for _Saturday Review_. Our
files only contain extracts of what Middleton said about _canoodle_
(I have not yet looked up the actual articles). He quotes
extensively from a letter from W.E. Umbach, the etymologist for
Webster's New World:

-After having identified the word as definitely an Americanism, dated
-in one of Mencken's works in the early 1850s and located by him as an
-expression common in the Missouri-Mississippi basin, I began to
-consider the likelihood of Mencken's explanation--that it is an
-American extravagant invention created on the frontier. It occurred
-to me that I might consider the possibility of borrowing from one of
-the languages which have contributed to the American vocabulary...But
-I referred to the old _Muret-Sanders Encyclopedic Dictionary_ and
-found, to my delight, _knudeln_, defined as 'to cuddle.'....It is
-almost impossible to escape the conclusion that it was one of the
-German words brought by German immigrants who came to the
-Missouri-Mississippi basin in the years following the Revolution of

Unfortunately, Umbach does not say where Mencken wrote this. It's
not in _The American Language_, where Mencken says nothing about the
date or locale of the word. In the light of the citational evidence
set out above, I am very dubious about _canoodle_ as an Americanism.
If it is not an Americanism, the _knudeln_ etymology is extremely
weak, despite the surface correspondence in sound and sense.

W3 based its etymology on the entry in Wright's _English Dialect
Dictionary_, which has the following under _canoodle_:

-CANOODLE, sb. Som[erset]. A donkey; also applied to persons. w.Som.
-N & Q. (1879) 5th S. xi. 197. e.Som. Used also fig. of one who makes
-love foolishly or 'spooneys' [sic--JLR] (G.S. [George Sweetman,
-Wright's east Somerset correspondent--JLR]) [Not known to our
-correspondents in w.Som.]

Interestingly, the _Survey of English Dialects: the Dictionary and
Grammar_, based on Orton's survey, has an entry _canuter_ for
"donkey" from Devonshire. This is surely in the same family as
_canoodle_ from Somersetshire, though the SED dictionary editors
append the peculiar note: "SBM headword queried as _cornutor_, but
more probably formed on Canute, English king with reputation for
obstinacy." Basing the form of a lemma on off-the-cuff etymologizing
doesn't seem like a good idea....

The association of donkeys with foolishness and lovesickness must be
the basis for connecting the two senses, though it seems rather
tenuous. A similar relation may hold between _spoon_ "simpleton",
_spoony_ "sentimentally foolish" and _spoon_ "to caress, pet"--maybe.
All in all, though, the OED and RHHDAS are probably wise to stick
with "origin unknown" for _canoodle_.