I prefer not to.

Dear Word Detective: My mother says that there was a comic book character that originated the contraction of “would rather” into “druthers.” Other folks call it a Southernism. Where’d it really come from? — Debbie.

Comic book? Southernism? How strange. I always assumed that it came from Druthers, our family butler when I was growing up. Druthers was a good man, but he never seemed to be there when you needed him, not a winning trait in a butler. I distinctly remember Father saying, nearly every day, “If I had my Druthers, I would drive to the shore and buy some carp. Where is my Druthers?” My brother Timmy, quite the card, finally replied, “Don’t you mean ‘Where ARE my Druthers,’ Father?”, whereupon Father sharply cuffed Timmy, then drove him down to the station and booked him for aggravated effrontery and chronic twerpitude. It was about this time that I realized I had wandered into the wrong house several years earlier, so I went home.

Please forgive me. It’s 89 degrees in this room and I feel, uh, rather odd. Anyway, “druthers” is an interesting word. It is indeed a Southernism, meaning that it arose in and still is found primarily in the southern US. And it is a dialectical variation of “would rather.” “Druther” is used both as a verb (“Any way you druther have it, that is the way I druther have it,” Mark Twain, 1896) and a noun to mean “preference,” sometimes in the form “ruthers” or “ruther” (“‘Your ruthers is my ruthers’ (what you would rather is what I would rather). Certainly the most amiable and appeasing phrase in any language, the language used being not English but deep Southern,” 1941).

“Rather” itself is a rather interesting word. It first appeared in Old English, from Germanic roots, and was actually the comparative form of the now long-obsolete adverb “rathe,” which meant “quickly, rapidly, without delay.” So this “rath-er” form meant “earlier, sooner or previously,” and eventually took on the more general adverbial senses used today, indicating preference (“I’d rather be in Philadelphia”), degree (“A rather large dog”), or contrast (“Next time, make sure you email just Bob, rather than the whole office”).

The first occurrence of “druther” found so far in print is from 1833 (“I’d druther live in the woods any time, by myself, than on the best plantation in the county,” American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine), discovered by etymologist Barry Popik. It was, of course, almost certainly in oral use long before it showed up in print, and logic dictates that the original form was probably “drather,” which is still occasionally heard in the South. One odd thing about “druthers” is that it began as an adverbial phrase (“I’d rather”), but became a noun. Another really strange thing is that, according to field research done by the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), using “druthers” as a noun is especially common among people with a college education (though usage of the verb “druther” doesn’t similarly skew along educational levels).

As for the comic strip origin of “druthers” your mother suggested, I have good news and bad. The bad news is that since “druthers” has been around since 1833, and its evolution is fairly well documented, a comic strip source is unlikely. The good news, however, is that your mother is not crazy. Cartoonist Al Capp (1909-79), in his wildly popular strip L’il Abner, apparently used “druthers” so often that many people believed that he had invented the word. Set in the fictional town of Dogpatch, Capp’s strip did contribute a number of phrases to the popular lexicon, including “Dogpatch” itself for a small, backward town, “Sadie Hawkins Day,” a fictional holiday when gender roles are reversed and women “chase” men, and “Shmoos,” friendly creatures that give milk, lay eggs, and look forward to being cooked and eaten.

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