If you are a writer, you’ve probably gone down a rabbit hole at one point or another. The idiom owes its meaning to Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice literally does that. She falls for a long time, Carroll tells us, as the rabbit hole turns into a tunnel, then a well:
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down a very deep well.
Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.
Research is like that, and we sometimes find ourselves bewitched, bothered, and begoogled by odd facts, ideas, and puzzles we come across. I went down one after learning that nineteenth-century Congressman David Crockett lent his name to a scathing 1835 hit job called The Life of Martin Van Buren: Heir-apparent to the “government,” and the Appointed Successor of General Andrew Jackson. I found myself wondering why Crockett disliked Van Buren so intensely. I never found out, but the database JSTOR led me to an article by Thomas E. Scruggs called “Davy Crockett and the Thieves of Jericho: An Analysis of the Shackford-Parrington Conspiracy Theory.” There I learned of the robust historical debate surrounding Crockett, his celebrity, and the authorship of his books. And I learned that while running for re-election to Congress in 1834, Crockett announced that if the people of Tennessee didn’t want him, “They can go to hell and I will go to Texas.” After losing re-election in 1834, he did just that and died at the Alamo in March 1836, before Van Buren was elected. My curiosity satisfied for the moment, I climbed out of the rabbit hole and I made a note to get a biography of Crockett so I could fill out my understanding of the “King of the Wild Frontier.”
I fell in a rabbit hole again listening to the audiobook of M. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became. I noticed the words cop-dar and city-dar, referring to characters’ abilities to sense police and to recognize aspects of the book’s animated city.These got me thinking of other extensions of –dar, the word part that arose from blending gay plus radar to gaydar.
Now, it seemed, –dar had become a new productive morpheme.Searching dar itself was pointless since Google doesn’t allow wildcards for partial words. A search of the quoted phrase “morpheme -dar” brought up couple of posts on the Language Log, yielding grammardar, sarcasmdar, humordar, sexdar, fishdar, and –dar connected with various ethnic identities. A 2016 “Among the New Words” roundup in the journal American Speech added nerdar and assholedar. The Urban Dictionary had more, including Qdar, for the ability to recognize Q-Anon followers.
Eventually, it occurred to me to search “dar is broken” since so many of the examples occurred in that context. And in this way, I found meme-dar, boy-dar, bi-dar, love-dar, fake-dar, man-dar, racism-dar, asshole-dar, bullshit-dar, troll-dar, and even shoe-dar. There were also examples of ‘dar standing alone when the context made things clear. I put –dar aside, confident that here was something deserving more study when there was time.
Often a rabbit hole involves a quote. I was curious about the description of Herber Hoover as “a fat, timid capon.” Who said it? Some sources attributed it to supporters of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. Others attributed it to FDR himself. But a search of Time magazine turned up something, from 1928, four years before the FDR-Hoover matchup:
An insult from Editor William Allen White, Republican, of the Emporia, Kan., Gazette to Candidate Hoover which will not soon be forgotten was the following, circulated in public prints last week:
“In the Republican shambles, he [Mr. Hoover] is vaguely reminiscent of a plump and timorous capon, fluttering anxiously on the outskirts of a free-for-all cockfight.”
A Newpapers.com search confirmed the capon dust-up as occurring well before the 1932 election. It’s likely that FDR or his supporters (or both) picked up the capon jab from White and recycled it four years later. And the wording shifted over the years from plump to fat and from timorous to timid. When I did the section on Hoover in my book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels, I left out the capon line since it had too many twists and turns for easy explanation. But at least I had satisfied my rabbit-hole curiosity.
Rabbit-holes are inevitable. And as writers it’s okay to indulge ourselves every now and then. Alice and company would certainly approve.
Feature image: “Page 110 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Carrol, Robinson, 1907)” by Charles Robinson. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.