Q: I’ve been seeing the word “boonswoggle” a lot lately, especially online, but I can’t find it in my dictionary. Is it legitimate?
A: I hadn’t heard the word before and couldn’t find it when I went to my traditional language references, including the Oxford English Dictionary. I had almost 200 hits, however, when I Googled “boonswoggle” and “boonswaggle.”
Many of the “boonswoggle” hits referred to one of the Boos, characters in the Nintendo video game Luigi’s Mansion. Many other hits, for both the “woggle” and “waggle” spellings, appeared to be the result of inadvertently mushing together “boondoggle” and “hornswoggle.” The rest strike me as humorous attempts at wordplay, which is interesting because “hornswoggle” came into being (along with “absquatulate,” “bloviate,” “discombobulate,” and “skedaddle”) during an especially inventive period in American English.
Michael Quinion, on his World Wide Words website, writes: “The 1830s—a period of great vigour and expansiveness in the US—was also a decade of inventiveness in language, featuring a fashion for word play, obscure abbreviations, fanciful coinages, and puns.” Among the inventions that didn’t survive, he says, were “blustrification (the action of celebrating boisterously), goshbustified (excessively pleased and gratified), and dumfungled (used up).”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says the earliest appearance of “hornswoggle” was actually in 1829, a year short of the 30s. The dictionary says it belongs to “a group of ‘fancified’ words that were particularly popular in the American West in the 19th century” and it might have been “invented to poke fun at the more ‘sophisticated’ East.”
As for whether “boonswoggle” is legit, it’s not standard English now, but only time will tell.