Davy Crocket: King of the Sockdolager


The invention of Grand Canyon tall tales didn't die out with John Hance. River guides have proven good at it, sometimes unintentionally. One tale that circulated for years was that ‘Matkatamiba' was the Havasupai word for “girl with a face like a bat”. One day a guide repeated this folklore to a Havasupai, who was quite amazed by this news, and disclosed that ‘Matkatamiba' was a Havasupai family name. An inquest into the origin of this lore turned up a guide who confessed he had simply invented it. In the meantime, Paul Simon had gone down the river, heard this lore, and put a line about a bat-faced girl into a hit song. At least, this is the version of events I heard; maybe you heard another.
Recently I was amazed to discover that I too had invented a bit of canyon folklore. Somehow I got the idea that the word ‘Sockdolager' was Swedish in origin. I had repeated this a few times, until one day I repeated it to a Swedish woman in an eddy below Sockdolager, and she said “Huh? Never heard of it.” At a loss to explain where I'd gotten this notion, I consulted the Facts on File Encyclopedia or Word and Phrase Origins, and was informed that the word Sockdolager was coined by Davy Crockett himself. Crockett had also invented the word “ripsnorter” and the sayings “quicker than hell can scorch a feather” and “like singing psalms to a dead horse.”
Thinking that this was a marvelous addition to canyon lore, I set out to discover just how Davy Crockett had come to coin the word ‘sockdolager'. Not having done much research into Crockett since watching Disney as a kid, I little suspected what I was getting into. Crockett biographers have spent years trying to sort out the facts from the Crockett legends, if indeed they wanted facts at all. In his own lifetime Crockett was already being turned into a mythical character like Paul Bunyan. Crockett did have the stuff of folklore in him, but this folklore image was shrewdly promoted by the Whig political party, which needed its own populist frontiersman to counter the appeal of Andrew Jackson. To prepare Congressman Crockett for the Presidency, the Whigs ghostwrote an autobiography and other books for him, books full of frontier idiom and heroic bear hunting and Indian fighting. Crockett's death at the Alamo unleashed a long flood of pseudo-biographies, potboiler dime novels, and Crockett Almanacs, which inflated him into a superman who could wrestle tornadoes and ride lightning bolts.

I dutifully read the autobiography, and indeed there was a “singing psalms to a dead horse”. But while there was lots of fighting in it, there was no sockdolager, not even an ordinary sockdolager, not to mention a ripsnorter of a sockdolager. I read the most scholarly biography, but there was no sockdolager. Then I read the 1831 New York hit play The Lion of the West, which featured the Crockett-based Nimrod Wildfire, who spouts backwoods witticisms like “You might as well try to scull a potash kettle up the falls of Niagara with a crowbar for an oar.” For a duel, Wildfire chooses rifles for weapons, and brags about the deadly effect of his rifle:

“He'll come off as badly as a feller I once hit a sledge hammer lick over the head—a real sogdolloger. He disappeared altogether; all they could ever find of him was a little grease spot in one corner”. This play did more than anything to spread the Crockett legend, and biographers started stealing lines from it and putting them into Crockett's mouth. In his text, the playwright put quotation marks around “sogdolloger”, as if it was an unfamiliar word, and indeed the earliest citation for it in The Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1830. This play may have been the first time most people heard the word ‘sockdolager'.
In the 1880s appeared a dime novel called Sockdolager! A Tale of Davy Crockett, in which the Old Tennessee Bear Hunter Meets Up With the Constitution of the United States, a tract against government spending, which the state of Virginia found useful to reprint, at taxpayer's expense, when Kennedy assumed the Presidency in 1961. The same author wrote The Bear-Hunter; Or, Davy Crockett as a Spy, which contained the line: “I gave the fellow a sockdolager over his head with the barrel of my gun”. This line was soon quoted in a dictionary to define usage of the word ‘sockdolager'.
I checked many dictionaries, and they agreed that ‘sockdolager', in its various spellings, was an early 1800s American slang, meaning “knockout punch” or “something ultimate”. But no one else cited Crockett. Most were content to say “origin obscure.” The venerable Oxford English Dictionary made no attempt to cite an origin, saying only “probably a fanciful formulation”. But several American dictionaries repeated the idea that it was a combination of ‘sock' and ‘doxology', or the closing of a sermon. But this theory doesn't convince me. It's a big jump between a rousing church hymn and a gun barrel smash on the head. Even the wordplay-loving Shakespeare probably wouldn't have risked baffling his audience by leaping from ‘doxology' to ‘dolager'.
But I doubt that Crockett coined ‘sockdolager'. His talent was delivering sockdolagers with his rifle butt. It was probably Nimrod Wildfire, who graced American stages for thirty years, who was the major popularizer of this backwoods word. It did pass into widespread usage. Huck Finn spoke it on his raft: “The thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away, and then rip comes another flash and another sockdolager.” John Wilkes Booth waited for it outside Lincoln's door at Ford's Theater, for he knew that the line “you sockdolagerizing old man trap” in another play drew the biggest laugh, loud enough to cover the sounds of an opening door and a gunshot. Nimrod Wildfire so thoroughly linked ‘sockdolager' with Crockett that they ended up linked in a dictionary 150 years later. The Facts on File citation is likely just another episode in the never-ending Crockett legend. By the way, Webster's Dictionary says that ‘ripsnorter' originated in 1840, four years after Crockett's death.
Don Lago