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Edwin Battistella goes down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

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.

Recent Comments

  1. Andrew

    I think the years in the Davy Crockett paragraph are off. The 1934 references through me for a loop. So much so, I went down a rabbit hole to confirm Davy Crockett did die in 1835.

  2. Marc Taliaferro

    Should be 1834, I think you agree.

    And I learned that while running for re-election to Congress in 1934, 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 1934, he did just that and died at the Alamo in March 1835, 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.”

  3. Paloma Freitas

    Ok, love the blog post… but the prose of it could use some tidying up. I couldn’t help myself. I haven’t been to a writers workshop in soooo long. So if you’re ever wanting a copy editor for a blog post, here’s my application:

    If you are a writer, you’ve probably gone down a rabbit hole at one point or another. The idiom owes its origin to Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice does just that. She falls for a long time, Carroll tells us, as the rabbit hole turns into a tunnel, and then a well:

    The rabbit-hole went straight on… and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling.

    We got rid of any awkward sentences and repeated phrasing. And I added some alliteration to because it’s Alice and we should be allowed to have fun writing about it.

  4. Rawdon Crawley

    ” I learned that while running for re-election to Congress in 1934, 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 1934, he did just that and died at the Alamo in March 1835″

    You’d think the man who invented a time machine would be better known.

  5. OUPblog team

    Thank you Rawdon, Marc, and Andrew for flagging these date errors – and apologies for sending you down the rabbit hole! We have now corrected the dates. With best wishes, the OUPblog team.

  6. Allen Wiener

    Very interesting take. In choosing a Crockett book I hope you will consider “David Crockett in Congress” (Bright Sky Press, 2009), written by myself and James R. Boylston. It is an updated account of Crockett’s political career that examines his priorities and motives, and explains why he did what he did once marginalized by the Jacksonians. It also dispels the common portrayal of Crockett as an ignorant bumpkin who was politically clueless. Also, the “Life of Martin Van Buren” was published in 1835, not 1834, as Crockett’s congressional career was winding down. He had nothing to do with the book other than lending his name to it, which did reflect badly on him. Of much greater interest and significance is his autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee,” published in 1834. The book was a sensation and has never been out of print. It made Crockett a national celebrity but did little to help his political career.

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