Dear Word Detective: When I was a child, I frequently heard the word “oodles,” meaning “lots of,” as in oodles of money, oodles of people, even oodles of worries. I think the word is used less often now, but I wonder about its derivation. — Jim Donovan, Chesterfield, MO.
Hey, you’re right. Whatever happened to “oodles”? Time was that “oodles” was a perfectly acceptable way to enumerate an abundance of all sorts of things (“Woolworths has oodles of Slinkys”), but the last time I tried to use it with our accountant in explaining our deductions, he seemed peeved at my use of the term. I blame the rise of computers and spreadsheets. While once we would be happy to gesture broadly and brag, “We have oodles of cats,” now people want to know precisely how many, down to the whisker. But in my book there’s more to life than taking an endless inventory, so I don’t have to answer that question.
There seems to be a perverse principle at work in the English language that says that the more fun a word is to say, the less we know about it. “Oodles” is, at least to non-accountants, an entertaining word, so you can guess where this is going. What we find when we go looking for the origins of the “oodles” is a few dates and a lot of theories. But at least the theories are interesting and involve some similarly amusing words.
We do know that “oodles” first cropped up in print in English around 1867, meaning “a large or unlimited amount of something” (“All you lack’s the feathers, and we’ve got oodles of ‘em right here,” 1887). The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “oodles” is a short form of “scadoodles,” US slang of the same period also meaning “a lot.” This leads to the logical suspicion that “scadoodles” is an elaboration on the word “scad,” more common in its plural “scads,” which was also common slang of the time meaning, you guessed it, “lots” (at first of money, later of anything). Unfortunately, we have no more idea of where “scad” came from than “oodles” or “scadoodles.”
Another theory, equally plausible, traces “oodles” to “boodle” or “caboodle,” one-half of the phrase “kit and caboodle,” meaning “all and everything” (“The Sheriff seized the house, the land, the dog, the whole kit and caboodle”). The “kit” in the phrase is 18th century English slang for “collection” or “necessary items” (as in a soldier’s “kit bag”). The “caboodle” harks back to the Dutch word “boedel,” meaning “property.” The phrase “kit and caboodle” also became popular in the mid-18th century, so the timing is right for “caboodle” to have been shortened to the simpler “oodles.”
My hunch is that all of these words, “oodles,” “scadoodles” and “caboodle,” are mutations of “boodle,” if for no other reason than the greater age of “boodle,” which was actually a legal term meaning “estate” a century earlier. There are also other dialectical elaborations on “boodle” floating around out there, especially in the American South, including “boocoodles,” a mix of “boocoo” (from the French “beaucoup,” meaning “much” or “plenty”) plus “oodles.”