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July 2008 Issue

Oh, hi.  What time is it?  I must have fallen asleep.  Sorry about that.

So, did Hillary win yet?  Anybody ever figure out what kind of batteries Mitt takes?

Ralph Nader is running?  That’s a bad sign.  Wake me when it’s over.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been away for a while.  On a spiritual quest to determine the meaning of life, if you must know.  And now I’m back, and yes, I know the answer.

But first, Grasshopper, you must mow my lawn.  Using your own gasoline.  Good luck.  The perpetual rain here in Central Cowland has transformed our seven acres of Midwestern scrubland into Amazon North, complete with weird clinging vines, exotic avian species, and, my personal fave, clouds of biting insects. We also seem to have become the local animal sanctuary, and are now providing a habitat for hundreds of rabbits, platoons of raccoons, a major underground city of groundhogs, several skunks, two humongous turkey vultures, a large owl, a redtailed hawk (a very cool looking critter, by the way), an endless parade of squirrels and chipmunks, frogs, snakes both great and small, and (this is new) a small herd of deer, which Brownie the Dog enjoys chasing across the front yard several times a week.  We also have, not surprisingly, a pack of coyotes living in the field across the road, who come right up to the house late at night.  When the fire engines start up in town several miles away, they start to howl along with the sirens.

Anyway, here is the July issue of TWD, formerly known as the June issue, rumored to have been originally intended as the May issue.  I am compelled (by the rising cost of cat food, if nothing else) to point out that folks who subscribe to TWD-by-Email have been receiving these columns like clockwork throughout our recent web hiatus.

Oh, right.  The meaning of life. Be kind.  Beyond that, beats me.  But as Pogo said,  Don’t take life so serious.  It ain’t nohow permanent.

 And now, on with the show….


Just enough.

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.”

La La Land

Pittsburgh with palm trees.

Dear Word Detective:  Mike Royko did several humorous columns about southern California.  I recall one in which he felt that the USA was tilted so all the strange stuff ended up there.  He also coined the moniker “Governor Moonbeam” for Jerry Brown for proposing that California have its own space satellite.  Did he have anything to do with coining the phrase “La La Land”?  (Or is it “LA LA Land”?)  What is the origin of that useful phrase? — Maxwell M. Urata.

Good question, but I’ll have to be careful with my answer.  I might as well admit, right off the bat, that I’m a bit afraid of California.  For one thing, I can’t even type the word without hearing it as pronounced by Governator Ahnold (“cally-FOR-nee-ya”), which makes it sound like either an esoteric legal maneuver or a very unpleasant fungal disease.  I also can’t shake the memory of a science fiction story I read as a child in which California begins spreading eastward and farmers in Iowa suddenly start wearing sunglasses and reading Variety.  I guess that’s two votes for fungus.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have had to explain who Mike Royko was, but it’s probably a good idea to do so now, which is a real shame.  From 1959 until his death in 1997, Royko was the quintessential big city newspaper columnist, the city in this case being Chicago.  Mike Royko’s beat was the lives of working people and the world as viewed through their eyes, rendered with his own wit and fearlessly sharp tongue.  His characterization of then-Governor Jerry Brown as “Governor Moonbeam” in 1978 is perhaps his most famous creation, but Royko later said he regretted coining the term and considered it unfair to Brown.

“La-La Land,” by which is generally meant Los Angeles (although occasionally all of California), certainly has the ring of Royko, but it’s not one of his inventions.  The earliest appearance of the term (in reference to Los Angeles) so far found comes from 1979.  Interestingly, at about the same time, “la-la land” came into use as a slang phrase meaning “a state of dreamy disconnection from reality,” whether due to drunkenness or dementia.

The match of “la-la” to “LA” as an abbreviation for Los Angeles has certainly contributed to the popularity of “La-La Land.”  But “la-la” by itself has long been used to mean “to sing a song by substituting ‘la la’ for the words” (as a child or childlike adult might), which may have fed into the “demented” meaning of “la-la land.”

And while Los Angeles wears the “La-La” crown today, there is evidence that it was not the first winner.  Linguist Ben Zimmer, writing on the American Dialect Society mailing list two years ago, noted a headline from 1925 (in the Los Angeles Times, no less) in which Paris goes by the name “La-La Land.”  Evidently this “La-La” was drawn from the stereotypically French interjection “Ooh-la-la!” (meaning literally “Oh, there, there!”), a phrase popularized by American comedians and cartoons when France was considered the epicenter of all things risque.