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Outstanding in the field.

Dear Word Detective: I am reading “A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube” by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and I came across the word “clodhopper” — he lays in a bed of hay “with crossed legs still putteed and clodhoppered.” Can you inform us on the history and usage of the word “clodhopper” (which I always thought was North American, but evidently not). And by the way, it also reminds me of that old Red Skelton character Clem Kadiddlehopper. Any connection? — Denis O’Hearn.

Good question. But first things first. It has lately come to my attention that many of my readers are of such tender years that nearly anything preceding the advent of the internet (tape cassettes, film cameras, actual newspapers, actual bookstores, actual books) needs explaining. I have a funny feeling Red Skelton falls into that category, so here goes. Red Skelton was an enormously popular US humorist and entertainer on radio and TV (as well as in vaudeville and movies) from the 1930s until the 1970s. The son of a circus clown, Skelton developed several long-running comic characters, including Freddie the Freeloader (in which role he duplicated his father’s clown makeup) and Clem Kadiddlehopper, a sweet but simple-minded rural bumpkin. Clem was actually based on a neighbor of Skelton’s family in the small Indiana town where he grew up.

Clem was certainly what some folks would call a “clodhopper,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a ploughman or agricultural labourer; a country lout; hence, a clumsy awkward boor, a clown.” The logic of the term lies in an earlier, more literal bit of that definition, “one who walks over ploughed land.” If you’ve ever walked across a freshly-plowed field (to use the US spelling of “plough”), the first thing you notice is that your boots are quickly encrusted with what seems like three or four pounds of dirt in the form of large, moist chunks. Those, and the larger chunks of earth thrown up by the plow, are “clods.” Interestingly, “clot” and “clod” are actually the same word, derived from Germanic roots close to those that produced “clay.” The words “clot” and “clod” were used interchangeably until the 18th century; today “clot” is used when referring to a lump of coagulated blood, “clod” in reference to dirt or other materials.

“Clodhopper” is a fairly old term, first appearing in print at the end of the 17th century; the sense is of someone whose day is spent in the fields, and “clodhopper” may well have arisen as a humorous twist on “grasshopper.” It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that “clodhopper” also began to be used as a term for the heavy boots or shoes worn by field workers. Today any heavy, unfashionable or “dorky” boot or shoe is often disparagingly called a “clodhopper.”

In the text you quoted, “putteed” indicates that the person was wearing “puttees” (from the Hindi word “patti,” bandage), which are long strips of cloth wrapped around the legs between the knees and feet as protective leggings. Puttees were adopted by the British Army in India in the late 19th century, and were part of that army’s field uniform during World War One. The combination of “puttees” and “clodhoppers” (perhaps combat boots?) thus tends to indicate that the person is either a soldier or outfitted for some serious walking.

As for Clem Kadiddlehopper, there’s clearly more than a hint of “clodhopper” there. But accounts I’ve read of Skelton’s career say that he based the character on a boyhood neighbor named Carl Hopper. Hopper was apparently hard of hearing and spoke with a peculiar intonation, which, filtered through Skelton’s creative genius, became Clem’s famous “loopy” style of speech. But Red Skelton was a famously kind and generous man, and his portrayal of Clem was never dismissive or cruel. My guess is that Hopper would have been thrilled.


Hey, procrastination can be hard work, y’know.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, President Obama criticized his political opponents in Congress for causing the country to be a “deadbeat” by failing to pay its debts. Leaving aside the politics, why “deadbeat”? Stiffing your creditors seems to have no connection to “dead” or “beat,” and combining the words only increases the puzzle. — Harvey.

You’ve been watching (or reading) the news again, haven’t you? C’mon, gang, we talked about this. Just say no. That way lies madness. Personally, I’ve decided to devote my disposable time to close consideration of the SyFy cable channel, purveyors of such fine dramas as the recent “Sharknado.” To this end I spent about an hour today (it seemed like weeks, actually) watching something called “Piranhaconda.” True, the title was the best part of this bizarre mess, but it still beats the Outrage du Jour Tape Loop on CNN.

In any case, I had not realized that this fine country had become a “deadbeat,” but I am nothing if not adaptable and will cease paying my bills forthwith.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “deadbeat” in the sense you mention as “A worthless idler who sponges on his friends; a sponger, loafer,” and Merriam-Webster chimes in with “one who persistently fails to pay personal debts or expenses.” The term “deadbeat” first appeared in the early 19th century with the somewhat different meaning of “completely beat” or “utterly exhausted.” “Beat” as an adjective, which originally meant literally “beaten” (as with a stick), had by the mid-18th century come to mean “worn out; exhausted” or “overcome by ill fortune or obstacles.” The “dead” in “deadbeat” is “dead” in the sense of “absolutely, completely,” as in “dead asleep.”

But in the mid-19th century a sightly different figurative sense of the verb “to beat” appeared, this one meaning “to cheat; swindle, defraud” a sense based on “to beat” meaning “to be victorious” as in “beating” an opponent in sports (“The … people who try to beat the street car conductors out of their fare.” 1904). “Beat” was also used as a noun to mean “a swindler or cheat,” especially a soldier who shirked duty or pretended to be injured (“The original idea of a beat was that of a lazy man or a shirk who would by hook or by crook get rid of all military or fatigue duty that he could.” 1887).

Eventually this “swindler, shirker” sense of “beat” superseded the “very tired” sense of the word in “deadbeat,” which resulted in the modern use of the term to mean “sponger or loafer.” One of the most common uses of the term today is in the alliterative “deadbeat dad,” a 1980s coinage meaning a man who does not live with his children and refuses to contribute to their support.

Whitehead, like a

Get a move on.

Dear Word Detective: I was reading a letter written during the American Civil War, and it contained this: “The gunboat opened fire in return and after throwing a few 11-inch shells among them they, as usual, turned and ran like whiteheads.” I was surprised to see the phrase “ran like whiteheads” because it is something my mother used to say when she scared little kids out of the yard. I thought it was just her own idiolect. Do you have any clue as to where this expression might have originated? — William Blum.

Ah yes, the “idiolect,” that mix of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and emphasis unique to each individual’s speech. Bane of my existence, those idiolects. People write me asking what their strange uncle meant by calling them “farfleborts” when they were kids, and I spend three days scouring every reference source I have. Empty-handed, I report my failure, only to be informed that said uncle actually spoke almost entirely in gibberish and was ultimately confined for shouting at clouds.

In this case, of course, you’ve encountered the term in another context, so there’s no doubt about its independent existence. As a matter of fact, the phrase “like a whitehead” has quite a large entry in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Meaning “very fast or vigorously,” it first appeared in print in the 1820s, and seems to have been very popular in the 19th century from Vermont down to Tennessee and no doubt beyond (“Why, mammy, I was so skeered that I dropped the pail and run like a white-head” 1860, Kentucky).

Unfortunately, DARE reports that the origin of “like a whitehead” is unknown. Fortunately, other entries in DARE and elsewhere for “whitehead” may provide a clue. “Whitehead” has been widely used as a colloquial term for a variety of birds, from the young of partridges to various geese, owls, jays and gulls that happened to have light-colored heads. It’s likely that the “whitehead” in the phrase originally referred to the sort of shore bird that ran rapidly along the sand when alarmed.

Interestingly, there is another sort of “whitehead” (apart from the skin blemish sort) that also involves something moving very rapidly. Robert Whitehead (1823 – 1905) was an English engineer who invented the first truly effective naval torpedo in the 1860s, which revolutionized naval warfare and eventually made submarines a major factor in World Wars I and II. So notable was Whitehead’s invention in the late 19th century that his name, for a few years at least, became a eponym for “self-propelled torpedo” (“A blow with even an ordinary Whitehead, let alone the improved Whitehead of the German navy, would practically rip the bottom out of the strongest ship afloat.” 1884).