In 1912, William Howard Taft—not a man known for eloquence—sent journalists to the dictionary when he used the word honeyfuggle. Honey-what, you may be thinking.
It turns out that honeyfuggler is an old American term for someone who deceives others folks by flattering them. It can be spelled with one g or two and sometimes with an o replacing the u. To honeyfuggle is to sweet talk, but also to bamboozle, bumfuzzle, or hornswoggle.
The word has some twists and turns in its history. According to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English, it was first recorded as a Kentucky term in 1829 with the definition “to quiz” or “to cozen,” both of which at the time meant to dupe.
The earliest example in the Newspapers.com database is from an 1841 story in a Tennessee newspaper, the Rutherford Telegraph, in which an editor used the term to mean insincere flattery. He said of the Speaker of the Tennessee state senate that “Some may say it is impolitic of me to talk thus plainly about Mr. Turney, and think it better to honey-fuggle and plaster over with soft-soap to potent a Senator.”
An 1848 report from the New Orleans Picayune refers to swindlers as honey-fuglers. An example from the Mississippi Free Trader in 1849 talks about political trickery intended “to honeyfuggle one party and exterminate the other,” and another Southern paper that year reported on a speech of General Sam Houston who attempted “to honey-fuggle the good hearers and get up a general hurrah of ‘Old Sam’.” The term remained in use in the second half of the nineteenth century, with a couple of hundred examples in newspapers around the country. It was used occasionally as a noun, and sometimes had the variants honeyfunk or honeyfuddle and it could mean also “snuggle up to” or “publically display affection.”
Honeyfuggle remained a marginal term, often characterized as slang or as a regionalism, but it popped into the national consciousness when Taft deployed it to characterize his predecessor and then-rival for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination. In a speech in Cambridge, Ohio, Taft said:
I hold that the man is a demagogue and a flatterer who comes out and tells the people that they know it all. I hate a flatterer. I like a man to tell the truth straight out, and I hate to see a man try to honeyfuggle the people by telling them something he doesn’t believe.
Teddy Roosevelt had plently to say about his former protégé Taft as well, calling him a fathead, a puzzlewit, and a flubdub. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency that year.
Taft’s speech popularized honeyfuggle for a time, and in 1915 the Los Angeles Express even reported on a socialite named Miss Queenie Alvarez, who concocted a soft-drink known as the Honey Fuggle made with sweet fruit juices.
Honeyfuggle still never quite caught on as a drink or as a mainstream English expression, perhaps because of the near homophony of fuggle with a different f-word. But it made a brief reappearance in presidential news in 1934 when the Syracuse Herald referred to another President Roosevelt as “the prize honeyfuggler of his time.” And in 1946, the word appeared in the title of a novel by author Virginia Dare: Honeyfogling Time. A reviewer explained that the book “takes its title from “a colloquialism popular in the Middle West of the Eighteen Eighties,” referring to “dishonest intentions” concealed “by honeyed words and promises.”
Where does honeyfuggle come from? One theory, found in Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms is that it is a variation of a British English dialect word coneyfogle, which meant to hoodwink or cajole by flattery. Coney is an old word for an adult rabbit and was sometimes used to indicate a person who was gullible. Fugle, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is older dialect term meaning “to trick or deceive.” So to coneyfogle or coneyfugle meant to cheat a mark.
Today the OED reports that honeyfuggle is “Now somewhat dated.” Perhaps we should try revive it.