Q: When I was growing up in Philadelphia, we used to call a car with only one headlight a “padoodle.” I can’t find it in my Webster’s dictionary. Could this have been some highly local slang?
A: The word you’re thinking of is usually spelled “padiddle,” though it’s sometimes seen as “bediddle,” “padungle,” “perdiddle,” “perdiddo,” and “padoodle,” according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.
The slang term, which refers to a car with only one working headlight, is also an exclamation shouted in a courting game played by young couples out for a drive.
DARE has examples of the usage from the Midwest, the West, and the East, though we hadn’t heard of the word before you wrote (Pat grew up in Iowa, Stewart in New York).
The regional dictionary has this 1959 explanation of the usage cited in Folklore From Kansas (1980), edited by William E. Koch:
“If a fellow sees a car coming with only one light and says ‘padiddle,’ he may kiss his girl. If she sees it first and says ‘padiddle,’ she may slap the boy.”
DARE also has examples from California, Washington, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, New Jersey, and Long Island, NY.
The usage seems to have originated in the 1940s. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a US colloquialism of unknown origin.
The OED’s earliest example is from an “Archie” comic strip in the May 23, 1948, issue of the Nevada State Journal:
“Let’s play ‘padiddle.’ … When a car goes by with one headlight if I say padiddle you have to give me a kiss!”
However, we’ve found a Library of Congress catalog that lists the Feb. 10, 1940, copyright for an unpublished song, “Let’s play padiddle; w Donna Mae Carlson,” suggesting that the usage dates at least as far back as the early ’40s.
The word sleuth Grant Barrett has described a less romantic version of the game played by children. In this version, according to an April 16, 2008, post on his blog, “If you shout first, you get the right to punch another passenger on the arm.”
Finally, DARE cites a third version of what happens when a padiddle comes into view, from an unpublished letter to the Newsletter of the American Dialect Society:
“If you see one coming, you’re supposed to kiss any handy members of the opposite sex and pinch any of the same sex.”