There were 40 accepted words in the solution to the March 5 New York Times Spelling Bee, and one of them was galoot.
Was it a coincidence that on that very day two contributors to the American Dialect Society listserv discussed the origins of this word?
Stephen Goranson, a specialist in Biblical archeology, cited the OED—earliest usage 1819, origin unknown—and offered his own antedating, from a book published in 1808: “‘Galloot [sic] means a clumsy, slovenly fellow.”
Gerald Cohen, who has been called “the grand impresario of American etymologists,” responded with his own findings:
For anyone interested, I wrote an article on this word: Origin of slang galoot, draft #2. Comments on Etymology, vol. 48, no. 7, pp. 26-32. The etymology had long been mysterious, but I present the case that it's a borrowing from the Arabic word for Goliath (Galut, with both vowels long). In Standard Arabic his name is pronounced Jalut, but in Lower Egypt (and Yemen) we find a hard /g/.
Cohen presented his research at the 2019 meeting of the Dictionary Society of North America, but I haven’t been able to locate the paper online.
What I have been able to locate are a lot of fun theories about galoot, which is, after all, a fun word to say.
- The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang , Volume 1 (1994), agrees with the OED about “origin unknown,” but adds that it’s “occasionally alleged” to come from Krio, an English-based Creole language that serves as a lingua franca throughout West Africa. In Krio, galut means “hefty” (i.e., a large person). Mark Twain used galoot in Roughing It (1871): “He could lam any galoot of his inches in America,” and that sentence might as well be in Krio; it’s unintelligible to me.
- The Dictionary of American Slang (1960, 1967) says a galoot is “a person, esp. a rustic, uneducated or ill-mannered person” and dates it from 1865: “possibly a Civil War term.” A second definition: “a young, inexperienced soldier.”
- Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1986) says a galoot is a man—it seems a galoot can never be a woman—“who is strange, odd, or foolish.” In a separate entry, this Webster’s defines galoot as a synonym for Ross’s goose, a small Arctic bird.
- Wordnik offers definitions from several English-language dictionaries. The most expansive is the one from The Century Dictionary: “A fellow: a term of humorous contempt, often implying something awkward, silly, or weak in the person so designated.”
By the way, if Gerald Cohen’s research is accurate, and galoot really does derive from Goliath, that will make two slang insults (that I know of) that were originally proper names in Hebrew Bible. The other is nimrod. In the Old Testament, King Nimrod of Mesopotamia was known as “a mighty hunter.” For several centuries, a nimrod in English simply meant “skilled hunter.” In 20th-century North America, though, according to the OED, nimrod became a slang term meaning “a stupid or contemptible person.” The reason for the appropriation is officially unknown, but the Online Etymology Dictionary offers this:
Amateur theories include its occasional use in “Bugs Bunny"”cartoon episodes featuring rabbit-hunting Elmer Fudd as a foil; its alleged ironic use, among hunters, for a clumsy member of their fraternity; or a stereotype of deer hunters by the non-hunting population in the U.S.
You can read a lot more about the Bugs-nimrod connection in “The Nimrod Effect: How a Cartoon Bunny Changed the Meaning of a Word Forever.”
For what it’s worth, though, the OED traces the “idiot” sense of nimrod to 1933—seven years before Bugs uttered the word—when it appeared in The Great Magoo, an unsuccessful play by Ben Hecht (who had scored a much bigger hit with The Front Page) and Gene Fowler. Here’s the line in question: “He's in love with her. That makes about the tenth. The same old Nimrod. Won’t let her alone for a second.”
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