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American Nicknames Part 1: Softies and Buckeye




By Anatoly Liberman

The origin of Buckeye is no secret, and, as in my essay on OK, I will add only a few details that may not be universally known. But first a short bibliographical digression. While compiling a database of works on the history of English words, I ran across numerous misleading references (a word is supposedly mentioned on a certain page, but it does not turn up on it; the year is given in a source as 1876, but it should have been 1867, and so forth). One of the periodicals mined for my bibliography was The Gentleman’s Magazine. In volume 278 (1895), in an article titled “Further Travels in Bozland” (Boz was Dickens’s pseudonym), Percy Fitzgerald discussed a curious expression Mr. Jingle uses in Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. By the end of the 19th century the slang of the mid-thirties had become partly incomprehensible. Fitzgerald referred to “Professor Skeat—best of all modern authorities,” who “[i]n a thoughtful paper contributed to the ‘Etymological Journal’ (July 1867) allegedly explained that through the button-hole means “drinking fairly—i.e. taking in wine through the mouth.” For years I have been trying unsuccessfully to discover the Etymological Journal. My more experienced colleagues also drew blank. Yet Mr. Fitzgerald must have seen Skeat’s note! Skeat’s bibliography does not exist, and I will probably never find out where that note was printed.

I am now leaving Dickens’s London for Ohio. In the Magazine of American History, volume 19, 1888, p. 82, an anonymous author says this: “Mr. A.A. Graham, Secretary of the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society, has recently published in the Ohio State Journal an answer to the question repeatedly asked, ‘Why are the Ohio people called Buckeyes?’ Mr. Graham quotes from a brilliant after-dinner speech by the celebrated Dr. Daniel Drake, the botanist of the Ohio Valley, at a public dinner given on the forty-fourth anniversary of the city of Cincinnati.” A summary of Dr. Drake’s answer follows. For my database I needed both the original and a retelling of the speech. It appeared that the Ohio State Journal is as elusive as the aforementioned Etymological Journal. With the help of a librarian I found Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications (Minnesota has a complete set of these Publications, and all I had to do was to go to the shelf and open them). Volume 2, and indeed for 1888, carries the article “Why Is Ohio Called the Buckeye State?” However, its author is William M. Farrar, not A.A. Graham, who was the Society’s secretary and, true enough, often appeared in Publications, but none of his contributions dealt with the famous nickname. Farrar does quote Dr. Drake, and it is easy to assume that the editorial assistant on the Magazine of American History made a mistake. But how could that hapless person give a wrong title and a wrong name? Some members of the Society who read the Magazine would have detected the error; yet there was no correction in any of the later volumes. Moreover, the summary in the note does not match what Farrar says! The plot thickened without leading to a denouement. Perhaps some readers of this blog know something about the two mysterious periodicals mentioned above. I will be eternally grateful for assistance, as the Dean, two deans ago, said to the faculty at my University while trying to disband a department with few professors and low enrollments. (Sorry for this Wellerism. Adventures in Bozland invite a certain measure of levity.)

When in 1884 the first volume of the OED was published, the editors knew that Buckeye meant “an inhabitant of Ohio” but had no citations; this is one of the rare cases of a word in the OED not supported by examples. In the first Supplement, several citations turn up, none of which predates 1822. I have at my disposal two reports of the tree called buckeye. J.H.J. wrote in 1861: “The name Buckeye was never applied to the State or its people by the early inhabitants, and the tree itself was not held in such estimation as to induce it. The early settlers found it utterly useless for most domestic purposes. It was unfit for building, or fences; the wood could not be split, and when green, made the worst of fuel. Its abundant fruit was utterly useless; while in one respect it was reckoned a nuisance, being injurious to cattle, which sometimes ate them, causing a kind of vertigo, called staggers” (Historical Magazine, volume 5, 1861, pp. 286-87).The nickname of the state and its inhabitants, J.H.J. emphasized, owes nothing to the qualities of the tree.This conclusion is made all the more persuasive by being formulated first in Latin and then in English.

The anonymous author in the Magazine of American History quotes Dr. Drake, according to whom the wood is soft, and “when the first ‘log cabin’ was to be hastily put up, its softness and lightness made it precious; for in those times laborers were few and axes once broken in hard timber could not be repaired. It was, moreover, of all the trees in the forest, that which best arrested the rifle bullets of the Indian. When the infant Buckeyes came forth to render these solitary cabins instinct with life, cradles were necessary, and they could not be so easily dug out of any other tree.” Compare the phrase utterly useless, used twice in the previous passage. However, the two authors agree on the texture of the tree. In a postscript to his first publication, J.H.J. adds: “The name of Buckeye was a term of reproach, applied in a very early day to lawyers and doctors, who happened to be regarded a little soft” (volume 6, 1862, p. 37). They also agree that the nickname is connected with the presidential campaign of 1840, even though an association between the buckeye and Ohio arose before that time.

When General William Henry Harrison was nominated for President, an opposition newspaper said that he was better fitted to sit in a log cabin and drink hard cider than rule in the White House. Harrison became “the log cabin candidate,” and his supporters (“the merry buckeye boys”) sang the song: “Oh where, tell me where/ Was your buckeye cabin made,” and so on. The buckeye achieved the status of a popular emblem and was commercialized. Crowds of men and boys went to the woods in the morning and returned later in the day “carrying great bundles of buckeye sticks, to be converted into canes and sold to travelers, or sent to adjoining states to be sued for campaign purposes.” This part of the story can be easily found in the Internet. As far as I can judge, its source is Farrar’s 1888 essay. Both OK and the nickname Buckeye existed before Van Buren’s and Harrison’s campaigns but rose to such prominence thanks to them. It is a curious fact that we are dealing with the same period. Van Buren and Harrison, it will be remembered, were the eighth and the ninth presidents of the United States respectively.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    A brief look at Percy Fitzgerald, Bozland, Dickens’ Places and Peopls (London, 1895) esp. pp. 149-51 suggests that this reference is a hoax in a letter supposedly from “J. Dowler.” Followed by p. 151: “Professor Skeat wrote no ‘thoughtful paper’ on the phrase; there is no ‘Doumolin’ [etc.]….”

  2. Stephen Goranson

    A brief look at Percy Fitzgerald’s Bozland, Dickens’ Places and People (London, 1895) suggests that the reference 9p. 149) appears in a letter supposedly from “J. Dowler” (p. 150) which is a hoax. But (p.150, after the letter) “Professor Skeat wrote no ‘thoughtful paper’ on the phrase,” followed by another fake reference denied.

  3. Stephen Goranson

    I suppose the reference you seek is Celebration of the forty-fifth anniversary of the first settlement of Cincinnati and the Miami country on the 26th day of December, 1833 by natives of Ohio. Cincinnati : Shreve & Gallagher, 1834. 52 p. ; 22 cm. (And later reprints of Drake’s address.)

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