Q: I was watching “The Sopranos” and I got to wondering about the word “goon.” Do you know the origin of the term?
A: The Oxford English Dictionary speculates that “goon” may be related to “gooney,” an older word meaning booby or simpleton. The OED’s earliest published reference for “gooney” goes back to 1580. By the early 19th century, the word was also being used by sailors to refer to the awkward-looking albatross.
The OED’s first citation for “goon,” meaning a dull or stupid person, dates from 1921 (in a Harper’s Magazine article). The word gained in popularity when the cartoon character Alice the Goon, a hulking bodyguard, showed up in the Popeye comic strip in 1933.
By the late 1930s, “goon” was being used to mean a thug, especially one hired to terrorize workers. Some language people trace the thuggish meaning to Alice the Goon. But Hugh Rawson, in his book Wicked Words, suggests that the source may be “gunda,” a Hindi word for hired tough.
The union-busting meaning was well-established by 1940 when Woody Guthrie’s song “Union Maid” referred to the “goons and ginks and company finks” who tried to intimidate workers. (A gink, by the way, is a stupid guy.) For more, check out the “goon” entry on Evan Morris’s website, The Word Detective.