Outstanding in the field.

Dear Word Detective: I am reading “A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube” by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and I came across the word “clodhopper” — he lays in a bed of hay “with crossed legs still putteed and clodhoppered.” Can you inform us on the history and usage of the word “clodhopper” (which I always thought was North American, but evidently not). And by the way, it also reminds me of that old Red Skelton character Clem Kadiddlehopper. Any connection? — Denis O’Hearn.

Good question. But first things first. It has lately come to my attention that many of my readers are of such tender years that nearly anything preceding the advent of the internet (tape cassettes, film cameras, actual newspapers, actual bookstores, actual books) needs explaining. I have a funny feeling Red Skelton falls into that category, so here goes. Red Skelton was an enormously popular US humorist and entertainer on radio and TV (as well as in vaudeville and movies) from the 1930s until the 1970s. The son of a circus clown, Skelton developed several long-running comic characters, including Freddie the Freeloader (in which role he duplicated his father’s clown makeup) and Clem Kadiddlehopper, a sweet but simple-minded rural bumpkin. Clem was actually based on a neighbor of Skelton’s family in the small Indiana town where he grew up.

Clem was certainly what some folks would call a “clodhopper,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a ploughman or agricultural labourer; a country lout; hence, a clumsy awkward boor, a clown.” The logic of the term lies in an earlier, more literal bit of that definition, “one who walks over ploughed land.” If you’ve ever walked across a freshly-plowed field (to use the US spelling of “plough”), the first thing you notice is that your boots are quickly encrusted with what seems like three or four pounds of dirt in the form of large, moist chunks. Those, and the larger chunks of earth thrown up by the plow, are “clods.” Interestingly, “clot” and “clod” are actually the same word, derived from Germanic roots close to those that produced “clay.” The words “clot” and “clod” were used interchangeably until the 18th century; today “clot” is used when referring to a lump of coagulated blood, “clod” in reference to dirt or other materials.

“Clodhopper” is a fairly old term, first appearing in print at the end of the 17th century; the sense is of someone whose day is spent in the fields, and “clodhopper” may well have arisen as a humorous twist on “grasshopper.” It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that “clodhopper” also began to be used as a term for the heavy boots or shoes worn by field workers. Today any heavy, unfashionable or “dorky” boot or shoe is often disparagingly called a “clodhopper.”

In the text you quoted, “putteed” indicates that the person was wearing “puttees” (from the Hindi word “patti,” bandage), which are long strips of cloth wrapped around the legs between the knees and feet as protective leggings. Puttees were adopted by the British Army in India in the late 19th century, and were part of that army’s field uniform during World War One. The combination of “puttees” and “clodhoppers” (perhaps combat boots?) thus tends to indicate that the person is either a soldier or outfitted for some serious walking.

As for Clem Kadiddlehopper, there’s clearly more than a hint of “clodhopper” there. But accounts I’ve read of Skelton’s career say that he based the character on a boyhood neighbor named Carl Hopper. Hopper was apparently hard of hearing and spoke with a peculiar intonation, which, filtered through Skelton’s creative genius, became Clem’s famous “loopy” style of speech. But Red Skelton was a famously kind and generous man, and his portrayal of Clem was never dismissive or cruel. My guess is that Hopper would have been thrilled.

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