• palooka •
Pronunciation: pê-lu-kê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A good-hearted but dumb and incompetent professional boxer. 2. Any stupid, clumsy man who is not a bad sort.
Notes: Today's Good Word bears a time stamp that links it to the 30s and 40s, when the comic strip about the slightly goofy prizefighter Joe Palooka appeared in many US newspapers. The word is still around, though, and is still available to refer affectionately to someone who is a little dim but good-hearted. Where do palookas live? Why in Palookaville, of course, just down the road from Podunk.
In Play: Palookas are clumsy and not bright, but you can't hate them: "Maudie should never have taken the poor palooka to the china shop; he must have broken $100 worth before she could get him out." In fact, they tend to be funny, perhaps because the most famous of them, Joe Palooka, was a character in the funny papers: "The big palooka took his glass eye out at the dinner table and rinsed it off in his water glass."
Word History: According to H. L. Mencken in the 1945 supplement to The American Language, today's Good Word was created by Jack Conway, editor of Variety magazine in the 1920s (Michael Quinion in World Wide Words). However, it isn't clear whether Conway created the word or just used a word that was already around. It appeared in the Lincoln, Nebraska newspaper in 1923 for sure and may have come from the Polish name Paluka since many prizefighters of that day were Polish. By the end of the 20s, Ham Fisher's comic strip, Joe Palooka, was in most US newspapers so that most of us associate the word with a comic strip character. In a 1933 Washington Post article, Ham Fisher is quoted as saying he got the idea for the strip after talking to "an especially dumb but good-natured fighter" whose name he did not share. (Our thanks to the very unpalookaly Chris Berry for suggesting this interesting bit of Americana and especially for the quote from the Post.)