I’m still waiting for my Mister O’Malley.

Dear Word Detective: In “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” Damon Runyon refers to the main character as “a guy with no Barnaby whatever in him.” I’m stumped. What could “Barnaby” be? I can find no other explanation or citation of this phrase. Can you enlighten me? — Thomas.

Thanks for an interesting question, one which, I’ll admit, caught my eye because it invoked the name of Damon Runyon. Most folks who recognize his name today (a dwindling number, I fear) know Runyon as the writer behind “Guys and Dolls,” the great Broadway musical made into a classic film in 1955. But Runyon also wrote more than twenty books and countless stories, newspaper articles and poems, many chronicling the world of speakeasies, gangsters and gamblers in New York’s Times Square in the period during and just after Prohibition.

I tracked down Runyon’s “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” online, and it’s a classic Runyon story set largely in a Times Square speakeasy at Christmastime. The relevant passage, for our purposes, is “Anybody in town will tell you that Dancing Dan is a guy with no Barnaby whatever in him, and in fact he has about as much gizzard as anybody around, although I wish to say I always question his judgment in dancing so much with Miss Muriel O’Neill, who works in the Half Moon night club.”

So, who is this “Barnaby”? My first thought was of Crockett Johnson’s wonderful comic strip of the same name, which featured a small boy named Barnaby and his unconventional fairy godfather, the cigar-smoking Mister O’Malley (left). I suspected that by “Barnaby,” Runyon perhaps meant a credulous person likely to believe in fairies. But Johnson’s Barnaby didn’t appear until 1942, and “Dancing Dan’s Christmas” appeared in Collier’s Magazine in 1932, which would rule out that source.

A more likely explanation is that Runyon’s “Barnaby” was a modified form of the slang term “barney,” meaning “a uselessly stupid fellow” or “a dolt” (rooted in the English dialect term “barney” meaning a rigged horse race or a stupid or dishonest person). The peerless humorist S.J. Perelman used “barney” during the same period (“A flock of dumber barnies than the clerks at the Sub-Treasury I never met,” Don’t Tread on Me, 1929). Runyon was never shy about modifying vocabulary (and basic rules of grammar) to suit his characters’ voices, so “barney” becoming “Barnaby” on the narrator’s tongue is not a stretch. His use of “gizzard” in that passage, incidentally, was slang of the day for “courage” or “spirit.” So to describe Dancing Dan as having “no Barnaby” but plenty of “gizzard” in him was to say he was clever and had nerve to spare, a description borne out in the course of Runyon’s story.

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