Most Americans, wherever they live, cherish their regional language quirks, and Boston’s long history has given residents lots of words to love. Over the years, we’ve baffled newcomers with convenience stores called spas, dry cleaners called cleansers, and Hoodsies and packies and frappes.
Reach further back, and you’ll find Boston words long since gone mainstream: Scofflaw was the winner of a reader contest sponsored by the Boston Herald in 1923. Gerrymander made its debut in the Boston Sentinel in 1812. And OK, the workhorse of world vocabulary, first saw print in the Boston Morning Post in 1839.
Can we also claim canoodling for our own?
The question came up during a recent exhibit focusing on the Charles River’s recreational history. The exhibit documented the heyday of Norumbega Park, which opened in 1897 on the river in Newton’s Auburndale section, where the Newton Marriott Hotel now stands. Along with rides, a zoo, and a ballroom, the park offered canoe rentals, which gave couples the chance for a private outing while still technically in a public place. Despite the prying eyes of officers on the water, canoes soon earned a reputation as a refuge for young lovers.
Naturally enough, people have wondered if this snogging in canoes is the source of the word canoodling. As local historian Allison Carter told an inquiring reader at Newton’s Patch website, “While there is no way to prove that that term ‘canoodling’ was coined at Norumbega, many people believe that to be the case.”
Unfortunately for local pride, however, it’s easy to disprove the claim. As the Oxford English Dictionary records, canoodle appears in 1859, three decades before the grand opening of Norumbega Park. British writer George Augustus Sala, in “Twice Round the Clock: The hours of the day and night in London,” wrote of seeing “a sly kiss, and a squeeze, and a pressure of the foot or so, and a variety of harmless endearing blandishments, known to our American cousins … under the generic name of ‘conoodling’.”
The OED, taking Sala’s word for it, labels canoodle “originally U.S.,” but not all sources agree on that – or on the rest of canoodle’s history. Could it be related to the German knudeln, “to knead, caress,” or is it a variation (from Nottingham dialect or somewhere else) of “cuddle”? Some say it’s from a Somerset word for “donkey,” as in “foolish one,” others that it may be a play on noodle meaning “fool.”
Since the earliest uses don’t involve boating, it’s unlikely that canoes were part of the story. Still, the canoe idea keeps bobbing up. In 1879, when readers of the British journal Notes & Queries addressed the question, E. H. Marshall wrote, “When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, to Canoodle was the slang expression for paddling one's own canoe on the bosom of the Cherwell or the Isis.” (A few later sources, like Marshall, ignore the sexy sense altogether, calling canoodle merely a blend of “canoe” and “paddle.”)
Another N&Q reader had a more imaginative suggestion: “May not ‘canoodle’ be simply the invention (from canoe) of some humourist, suggested by paddle=fondle?” He quoted three examples of this paddle from Shakespeare, starting with Hamlet’s “Paddling in your neck with his damned fingers."
Whatever its origin, canoodle (with or without a canoe) was popular on both sides of the Atlantic by the end of the 19th century, and it’s still going strong today. Canoes, though, would last only a few decades as romantic refuges for canoodlers. By the 1920s and ’30s, amorous swains were moving on to motorcars, where they could pitch woo without rocking the boat.
And even on the slim chance that canoes were involved in the coinage of canoodle, it’s plain that the Charles’s courting couples did not inspire the term. But Greater Boston’s word lovers have no reason to fret. Whatever happens, we’ll always have scofflaw.
This program aired on October 4, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.