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
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'
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.