“You can call it a barrier, you can call it a wall, you can call it a wangdoodle for all I care.” – Sen. John Kennedy (Louisiana)
The above quote from the ongoing (some might say “never-ending”) discussion over what to call President Trump’s proposed border wall/fence/barrier reminds me of one of Mark Twain’s more obscure, early letters.
In a letter to William Clagett in March 1862, Twain wrote:
“Sunday.—I intended to finish this letter to-day, but I went to church—and busted! For a man who can listen for an hour to Mr. White, the whining, nasal, Whangdoodle preacher, and then sit down and write, without shedding melancholy from his pen as from a duck’s back, is more than mortal. Or less. I fear I shall not feel cheerful again until the beans I had for dinner begin to operate.”View Complete Letter via Mark Twain Project
I certainly feel the same melancholia about the interminable border wall debate as Twain did about his “Whangdoodle preacher”—although there doesn’t appear to be an impending, cheerful release from our quandary, as he was anticipating from his. Even so, investigating the origin of such a strange word like “whangdoodle” may offer something of a pleasant diversion while we wait for the proverbial beans of our national government to begin to operate.
According to the Merriam-Webster definition, a “Whangdoodle” is “an imaginary creature of undefined character.” The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that it is a “thing for which the correct name is not known.” There are other, less savory definitions for the word offered on “Urban Dictionary,” but I don’t want to besmirch the clean lines of the Twain Center’s new website with them.
There are literary references to Whangdoodles in beloved children’s books like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; however, Twain’s use of it in his biting critique of The Rev. A.F. White is likely from a parody sermon that was popular out West, where Twain lived at the time. Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 1notes:
No doubt Clemens associated White’s pulpit style with that of the “Hard-shell Baptist” preacher whose sermon, “Where the Lion Roareth and the Wang-Doodle Mourneth,” was a staple of frontier humor. The “Whangdoodle,” a “mysterious animal, like the ‘gyascutis’ of circus fame, has never been beheld of man and its attributes and habits are entirely unknown.”(Maitland, 300)
In the satirical sermon, the “unlarnt” preacher offers a jumble of misspelled words and specious theology to his “brethering”:
…my tex which I shall choose for the occasion is in the leds of the Bible, somewhar between the Second Chronik-ills and the last chapter of Timothytitus; and when you find it, you’ll find it in these words: “And they shall gnaw a file, and flee unto the mountains of Hepsidam, where the lion roareth and the wang-doodle mourneth for his first born…
…Now, my brethering, “they shall flee unto the mountains of Hepsidam;” but thar’s more dams than Hepsidam. Thar’s Rotter-dam, Had-dam, Amster-dam, and “Don’t-care-a-dam”—the last of which, my brethering, is the worst of all…
In reading these words, it occurs to me that our diversionary quest for the legendary Whangdoodle’s origin has led us right back here to modern-day “Don’t-care-a-dam,” where presidential “tex” about “covfefe” and “hamberders” make Kennedy’s allusion to “wangdoodle” an all-the-more-fitting label for the elusive border wall.