My back pages.

Dear Word Detective: I saw an old piece of yours from 2000 about the origin of the term “goon.” I don’t own an etymological dictionary, so I am just wondering if this term could not actually be derived from a shortening of the term “dragoon.” Dragoons were essentially armed thugs on horseback hired to keep people in line and to squash rebellions. Perhaps it’s just one of those convergent terms that seem to fit the picture. — M.

Sheesh. So I’m sitting here thinking, “Gee, ‘from 2000′ isn’t really old.” Yeah, right. That column is old enough to get married in certain states. The upside is that now I don’t feel so bad about covering some well-trod ground again. After all, there were people barely alive back then who have just learned to read in certain states. So this is for you, kids. Consider it a wedding present.

As I wrote way back then, when “goon” first appeared (the earliest print use found so far was in 1921), it did not carry its modern meaning of “thug” or “strong-arm man,” a plug-ugly who is hired to shape public opinion by beating people up. A “goon” back in 1921 was simply a simpleton, an oafish but not necessarily malevolent person. The modern “hired muscle” sense of “goon” arose in the labor struggles of the 1930s, when “goons” were dispatched by company bosses to intimidate union organizers. (“Goon” was also used during that period, albeit less frequently, to mean union activists who threatened or intimidated non-union workers.) This use of “goon” arose almost certainly as a way to label the opposition’s “goons” as violent morons.

The origin of “goon” in the original “doofus” sense is uncertain, but it seems connected to “gony,” a term applied by sailors to large and not-very-bright seabirds such as the albatross. “Gony,” also used by landlubbers since the 16th century to mean “simpleton,” may be related to the Scots “gonyel,” also meaning “fool.” One other possibility, raised by Hugh Rawson in his great book “Wicked Words,” is that “goon” in the “thug” sense is actually a separate word based on the Hindi word “gunda” (hired thug), which was frequently spelled as “goondah” in 1920s British newspapers.

As for “dragoon,” there appears to be no connection between that word and “goon.” The noun “dragoon” today is almost always found in historical accounts, because the common meaning is “mounted infantry,” and soldiers on horses are pretty thin on the ground in this age of drone warfare. But from the 17th century through the early 20th century, dragoon battalions were among the most elite, and feared, units of European armies. The word “dragoon,” which appeared in English in the early 17th century, refers to the type of carbine, a short musket, originally carried by the troops. This weapon was known as a “dragon” in French because its muzzle flash when fired reminded onlookers of a fire-breathing dragon. The English adopted the term from the French, who used it to mean both the weapon and the horse-mounted troops who carried it.

Not surprisingly, “dragoons” tended to be very fierce fellows, and the verb “to dragoon,” which in the 17th century meant “to attack with dragoons,” quickly came into more general use meaning “to compel by force, to harass” or “to persecute or oppress.” Eventually, “dragoon” came to mean simply “to compel forcefully” without overtones of menace or violence (“He wasn’t to be dragooned into doing or not doing anything,” 1861). It’s probable that the presence of the word “drag” in “dragoon,” although unrelated to our common English verb “to drag,” contributed to the modern kinder, gentler “dragoon” (“Goldman’s trading arm had been dragooned into finding and dumping their most dangerous assets to naive institutional investors,” 2012).

Page 1 of 2 | Next page