Tuesday, December 15, 2009
One of those words that I felt perfectly sure I knew the meaning of, if somewhat vaguely. However, a line in William Boyd's new novel Ordinary Thunderstorms made me suspect that I'd gotten the thing entirely backwards. Of course, I can't find the line to save my life now, but that's probably just as well, as it might lay my doubts to rest prematurely. It could, after all, have been a mere misreading.
Here's what I thought a boondoggle was--something you get stuck in, like a quagmire, or stuck with, like a piece of real estate in a swamp. But my reading of Boyd's sentence makes me think that a boondoggle is really more of a bonanza, a goldmine. Very far from my interpretation.
I have no idea where this word comes from--it sounds like something that came out of the South, which probably means it didn't. It's a great word, though, and I intend to use it more often. At least, once I know what I'm really saying...
Okay, neither what I thought it meant or what I thought Boyd meant are right, but I am sure Boyd did use it correctly in a sentence. It means "an unnecessary or wasteful project or activity". Coined by a Boy Scout scoutmaster, Robert Link, it refers back to objects made of braided cord or leather, which the scouts wore as kerchief ties, hat bands or other decorations. I am not sure if Link understood the satiric use of the word or not when he coined it. I'm guessing probably not. I don't have the sense that the Scouts were all that big on making fun of themselves.
A nice article from ZDNet actually vindicates me a bit, or at least helps me understand my miscomprehension. It mentions that the word was first used after the big government jobs programs that attempted to remedy aspects of the Great Depression. So there is a sense in it of massive projects, which, of course from some points of view are bound to look like a huge waste of time and money. We may have some boondoggles of our own in the near future, come to think of it.
The ZDNet article says that a distinguishing feature of a boondoggle is that at some point there is a realization that the project is not ever going to work, but that the project continues forward for a long time, despite this realization on the part of some. That site has a link to this article which lays out the etymology very well.
But to summarize. Sometimes, a boondoggle is only a lanyard. And sometimes, a boondoggle is a massive, incompetent endeavor by the State, the Military, or Big Business that is a huge waste of time and funds, benefiting no one.
Personally, I'll take the lanyard.