“The Podunk Mystery”

February 17, 2006

September 25, 1948 Today’s entry is by a very famous author not usually associated with the New Yorker: H. L. Mencken. Mencken, of course, was known as the “Sage of Baltimore,” spent most of his career at the Baltimore Sun, founded and edited the American Mercury, and wrote The American Language. (Wikipedia? Never heard of it.)

Mencken’s connection with the New Yorker is surprisingly strong; according to the CNY archive, he wrote 50 pieces for them between 1934 and 1949. Some of them look really fascinating: he looks at the Simplified Spelling movement, demonyms (e.g., Chicagoan), Anglicizations of European surnames, names for professions. Twenty-two of his entries are listed as “fiction,” and I have no idea what is up with that, whether Mencken had any talent for the art or what. (I think in the pre-Shawn era, the “Fiction” rubric was used rather loosely, but I’m not really certain of this.)

In the late 1940s the New Yorker gave him a rubric of his own, “Postscripts to the American Language,” to which, as the author of that work, only he was qualified to contribute. In this piece, Mencken takes up the word “Podunk,” and the result is remarkably engaging. Apparently, despite ample evidence to the contrary, lexicographers and newspaper editors alike insisted that there never was any such place as Podunk. Myths die hard: even after journalists discovered it, its status as fiction persisted. “Podunk” of course is associated with rubes, and you would think that the legendary derider of the “booboisie” would lay it on pretty thick. But while he does have a little fun at their expense, he manages to cut it both ways, lampooning the city slickers with equal vigor, particularly the well-lubricated reporters assigned to locate the place.

Toward the end of the article, Mencken explains that k-words are funny, listing the following towns as examples: Kankakee, Kalamazoo, Hoboken, Hohokus, Yonkers, Squeedunk, Stinktown (the original name of Chicago), and … Brooklyn! Attention Williamsburg hipsters: the place you live is a punchline.

Today the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed.) lists the derivation of “Podunk,” accurately, as “the name of two New England towns.” Reason triumphs again (and Mencken too).

Note: If you don’t have the CNY and you would like to read some Mencken material from the New Yorker, the Google cache coughed up this reminiscence about Dreiser.