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PAX, LUX ET VERITAS SINCE 1965
Post The Return of Sockdolager
Created by John Eipper on 03/12/12 9:40 AM

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The Return of Sockdolager (John Eipper, USA, 03/12/12 9:40 am)

For the last few years, WAISer Robert (Bob) McCabe has sent me (real, paper) copies of his literary/philosophical newsletter, Day Book.  It's been a quarterly treat that I've enjoyed immensely.

The Spring 2012 Day Book (vol. 9 no. 3) contains the article, "Bring Back Sockdolager!"  I was immediately hooked.  Bob writes:  "Daybook has decided to accept leadership of the campaign to restore regular and even enthusiastic general use of the too-often-ignored word 'sockdolager.'  Readers may join the campaign.  To participate, simply try to use the word once or twice a day in conversation, or even composition."

What's a sockdolager, you ask?  Bob continues:  "[it's a] finishing blow or statement...some synonyms, according to Merriam-Webster:  cat's meow, daisy, dilly, doozy, ... humdinger..."

The etymology of sockdolager, Bob writes, is unclear, although the first recorded usages date from the 1830s.  Mark Twain included it in both Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Most significantly, the word appears in the play "Our American Cousin," which President Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated in 1865--John Wilkes Booth, I fear, carried out the sockdolager of US political dissent.

Ever impressed by the arcane and the archaic, I am pleased to throw the entire weight of WAISworld behind Bob's cause.  Sockdolager--second syllable stressed, and a soft "g."  It rhymes with nothing I can think of, although "Doxology" comes close.  And I just checked our archives:  in 26,839 WAIS posts, the word has not been used once.  We have a lot of catching up to do.

My thanks to Bob for resurrecting such a long-neglected but worthy word.  Are there any other lexical gems we should bring out of retirement?  My preliminary vote goes to "knave."


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  • The Return of Sockdolager: Lincoln's Assassination (Nigel Jones, UK 03/12/12 4:54 PM)
    The exact line--"Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out--you sockdologizing old mantrap!" was more than merely a word in "Our American Cousin"--it was the word that triggered John Wilkes Booth's assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

    Booth, who knew the play well, was aware that a gale of laughter would follow actor Harry Hawk's characterisation of his would-be mother-in-law, and timed firing his Derringer single-shot pistol into the back of the President's head so that the laughter would cover the pistol shot. The plan worked, and most people only became aware of the assassination after Booth leapt from the Presidential box on to the stage and made his exit when Mrs Mary Todd Lincoln let out a piercing scream.


    JE comments: Bob McCabe actually included this reference in his Day Book essay on sockdolager; I should have made the point in my original post.  My thanks to Nigel Jones for filling in these crucial blanks.


    How about a thought exercise?  Had Lincoln not been assassinated, the vengeful North would not have exacted such a severe peace on the South, and the regional schism would have healed a generation sooner. There would have been no lingering racism in the South and thus no need for a Civil Rights movement.  The US would therefore not be living the continued Blue-Red divide that overshadows every aspect of politics today.  And all this because of sockdolager--might we have identified the most important word in US history?


    Sockdolager:  the sockdolager of words.


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    • Sockdologizing, Fish Hooks, and the Lincoln Assassination (Edward Jajko, USA 03/13/12 5:47 AM)
      In response to Nigel Jones (12 March), "sockdolagizing" may have been used in "Our American Cousin" in a sense derived from The Sockdolager, a patented clamping fishhook. So the reference in the play would not have to been to the lady's being a doozy of a mantrap, but to her being singularly grasping. A surefire laugh to an audience familiar with the product.

      JE comments: I came across this reference to the Yankee Doodle or the Sockdolager, patented in 1846:


      http://www.antiquetackleobserver.com/2010/03/17/spring-lever-hooks/


      (Gosh, I knew nothing about antique fishing tackle! They have websites for everything.)


      So the chronology is right for the fishing Sockdolager to have become part of the general lexicon by 1858, when the play was written in the UK.  At first I thought the word had originated in the product, but sockdolager already connoted "cat's meow" by the time of the patent. We could claim something analogous for Doosy (associated with the Duesenberg automobile, but already in use when the car was first produced), and the Real McCoy (a lubricating cup for train engines, but the expression existed earlier).



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  • Sockdolager...en Francais? (Alain de Benoist, France 03/13/12 5:38 AM)
    My English-French dictionary (Harrap's, 1550 pages!) gives the following translations for "sockdolager": 1) Coup énorme. 2) Argument décisif. 3) Objet énorme, épatant.

    JE comments: How about "soquedolagère"? Ed Jajko, WAISer linguist and etymologist extraordinaire, may have found the origins of the "Our American Cousin" reference to sockdolagizing. Fish hooks, anyone? Ed's note is next in the queue.



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