Dodgy Etymologies: Who’s hushing that puppy?

Dodgy Etymologies

Who’s hushing that puppy?

by Allison Burkette (Gravy, Summer 2016)

“The hushpuppy originated as a scrap of cornmeal dough, fried quickly and fed to dogs to silence whining or begging.”

A-letterAmong the “swarm of neologisms” noted by H.L. Mencken in his 1921 book The American Language are a plethora of corn-related compounds: hoe-cake, Johnny-cake, corn-dodger, roasting-ear, corn-crib, corn-cob, and pop-corn. Of these, “corn dodger” reveals the most colorful etymologies. One exposition harkens to the colonial perception that cornmeal was a hardship substitution for wheat flour. A baker of that era was thought a “dodger” if she used cornmeal instead of fancier and more expensive wheat flour. Sylva Clapin offered a more literal interpretation of the origins of “dodger.” In his 1902 New Dictionary of Americanisms, he described the manner in which cooks “toss a mass of dough rapidly from hand to hand to give it shape” or the way a corn dumpling “dodges up and down in boiling.”

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Hushpuppy batter at the Barbecue Center, Lexington, NC, and the fryer at Morris Barbecue, Hookerton, NC. Photos by Denny Culbert.

The back-and-forth motion of this small bread’s preparation could have given rise (pun intended) to its name. But the most likely etymological possibility is that “dodger” comes from the Scots word dadge, which means “a large piece of anything,”1 and its diminutive form, dodgel, “a lump of something.” The Dictionary of the Scots Language contains an 1825 reference to “a dodgel o’ bannock.” Given that “bannock” was also a word used in the Eastern states for cornbread, and given the extent of Scottish settlement in Appalachia, this seems a less dodgy explanation of why the term “corn-dodger” was applied to a lump of bread made from cornmeal.

Hush puppies at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Shelby, NC. Photo by Denny Culbert.
Hushpuppies at Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, Shelby, NC. Photo by Denny Culbert.

“Hushpuppy,” a related term, appears in print in 1918. Though its origins are also unclear, one theory is more pervasive than others: The hushpuppy originated as a scrap of cornmeal dough, fried quickly and fed to dogs to silence whining or begging. The identity of the puppy-hushers varies. Folk tales range from Confederate soldiers, to runaway slaves, to hunters, to beach-front partygoers. Another theory suggests that the “hush” part of hushpuppy developed from “hash,” from the French hache, “to cut into small pieces for cooking.” Yet another theory, from the 1977 Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, holds that the name “hushpuppy” derives from the water dog or mudpuppy, a salamander legendary for its size and ill temper. The mudpuppy would be considered desperate food; including “hush” in the name for cornmeal-and-salamander makes sense—you certainly wouldn’t want your neighbors to know you ate it.

Folk etymologies encode cultural information in their explanations of our linguistic world—the fanciful accounts of corn dodger and hushpuppy show us, for example, that attitudes toward cornmeal have changed.

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Allison Burkette on “The Cornbread Question” in Gravy #58.

Though none of these folk etymologies are likely accurate, they make for good stories. And they are more than just tall tales: Folk etymologies encode cultural information in their explanations of our linguistic world—the fanciful accounts of corn dodger and hushpuppy show us, for example, that attitudes toward cornmeal have changed. The bread flour that colonists initially regarded as uncooperative has become a touchstone of Southern cuisine. The variety of names for cornmeal-based breads speaks to that status. In the end, the best explanation for these two terms is the one that neither story-tellers nor linguists are willing to offer: Sometimes we just don’t know.

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1 Do refrain from using this label for people, as the DSL notes that ‘dadge’ can also be used in Scots to mean something akin to “tramp” or “slut” in English.

Allison Burkette is an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Mississippi. Her latest book is Language and Material Culture.

Header image: Hushpuppies at the Barbecue Center, Lexington, NC. Photo by Denny Culbert. Parallax image: Dock dinner, Crosby’s Fish & Shrimp, Charleston, SC. Photo by Sara Wood.