'Boondoggle' stems from an earlier Depression

People are saying the planned bailout of Wall Street is a boondoogle. Everybody throws the word around, but what is the origin of it? Is it from the American frontier?

— Jack N., Central Point

A boondoggle is a wasteful project, Jack, one that does no good. Your classic boondoggle continues long after almost everybody knows it.

The word geeks at the Since You Asked College of Etymology agree that the word sounds like frontier slang. The New York Times pegged it as such back in 1935 — but failed to document its claim.

The word didn't come into common usage until the 1930s. Republicans used it to attack the Roosevelt Administration's "alphabet soup" agencies (WPA, CCC, etc.) created to fight some of the effects of the Great Depression. FDR shot back that foreign loans made under Republicans were "foreign boondoggling."

Notice that even if you're not sure what it means, it sounds bad.

The apparent origin of the word is more innocuous. It seems to go back to Robert H. Link, a Boy Scout leader in 1920s New York who used the word to mean the plaited neck cords Scouts made in those days. Link considered the handicraft activity a "makework" or meaningless task, and the meaning has stuck.

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