Tuesday, February 12, 2008

dragging it on

About a year ago, BK Marcus quoted verbatim a definition from A.W.A.D. for the word dragoon to which I took a particular fancy, and thus will reproduce here.
dragoon (druh-GOON) verb tr.

To force someone to do something; coerce.

[From French dragon (dragon, to dragoon).]

This is a good example of how a term transferred from an object to a people to an action. Originally it referred to the firearms, either from the fact that they breathed fire like a dragon or from the shape of the pistol hammer. Eventually it began to be applied to a European cavalryman armed with a carbine. Today the term is used in the sense of forcing someone to do something against his or her will.

At the time, I was curious to learn if it was perhaps related to the word goon (when used to connote 'thug') and was mildly surprised to find a bit of disagreement surrounding the etymological origins for the word goon, a word I was convinced was related to the Indian word goonda, slang for ruffian. Most dictionaries attribute to the word goon the following etymology:
1921, "stupid person," from gony "simpleton" (c.1580), of unknown origin, but applied by sailors to the albatross and similar big, clumsy birds (1839); sense of "hired thug" first recorded 1938 (in ref. to union "beef squads" used to cow strikers in the Pacific northwest), probably from Alice the Goon, slow-witted and muscular (but gentle-natured) character in "Thimble Theater" comic strip (starring Popeye) by E.C. Segar (1894-1938). She also was the inspiration for British comedian Spike Milligan's "The Goon Show." What are now "juvenile delinquents" were in the 1940s sometimes called goonlets.

Double-tongued.org doubts the goonda theory; "The Hindi and Urdu term goonda can be translated as rascal or ruffian and even as goon, but there is no evidence to indicate that the English goon comes from goonda or vice versa.

A perhaps less authoritative source argues that "[a]ctually it is one of the many Indian words that crept into the English language during the days of the Raj. It is a modified form of the Hindi term "goonda," which means gangster. This term and a derivative "goondaism" are widely used in Indian English." See here also.

I found a talmudic source which should lend credence to the latter opinion. On daf 32a of tractate Nedarim the word goonda is spelled out in the Aramaic, and in this instance it denotes a destructive fighting force, which can be used to denote a group of thugs anywhere from a squad to an entire army.

What are the odds that the Aramaic word goonda which has been around for 2000+ years to denote a group of fighters in no way influenced the English language, lent to, if not borrowed from the Hindi word for the same? I go with the Aramaic/Hindi theory, at least for the time being.

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