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Galoot

Q From Jim Curran in Canada (a related question came from Sam Young in New Zealand): I have heard the expression big galloot but wonder what a galloot is, whether large or small? Can you enlighten me?

A I’m not at all sure one can have a small galoot. The image is usually of a man who is variously worthless, uneducated, simple-minded or stupid. He may be clumsy and large, but not necessarily, though big galoot is certainly the compound that’s most often been found. He may also be argumentative and difficult to get on with, hence the classic description ornery galoot that I recall from my days of reading American cowboy stories. It’s basically an all-purpose term of mild contempt with humorous undertones. On the other hand, like many such insults, galoot can also be a term of affection. It was quite widely used from about 1900 to the 1940s but is now outdated and unfashionable even in its American heartland.

The spelling I’m using, by the way, is the usual one in my dictionaries, though yours is also common. In its early days, around the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was also recorded variously as galoon, galoosh, galook and galout.

It appears in 1819 in a work with the catchy title Memoirs of the First Thirty-Two Years of The Life of James Hardy Vaux, A Swindler and Pickpocket; Now Transported for the Second Time, and For Life, to New South Wales. He added to it a glossary of slang, A New Vocabulary of the Flash Language, which Vaux had compiled while a transported convict in Australia. He defined galloot, as he spelled it, as “a soldier”. It retained that association in the 1864 edition of John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary, but Hotten spelled it geeloot and said it was a recruit or awkward soldier. Three years later Admiral William Henry Smyth published his Sailor’s Word-Book: an Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms and included that definition, adding a note that it could also refer to a “young or ‘green’ marine”.

Despite the early association with Australia, the term is British. The earliest example I’ve found in a printed work is this mildly mysterious snippet from a newspaper article about a political row involving a man named Swan:

Our excellent contemporary, the Edinburgh Evening Post, which so thoroughly exposed the humbug of the factious, scribbling, galloot Alexander Sommerville, has also landed the Swan high and dry, and never did anything bearing the same name look more awkward, even to deformity, than does the present specimen.

Old England (London), 20 Jan. 1833. The title of the article, by the way, is “Rara Avis — A Black Swan”, a play on the man’s name and character that long precedes all the fuss in recent years about the term black swan for a rare and unexpected event that has significant consequences.

Galoot was undoubtedly slang taken to Australia by involuntary immigrants. The associations with both army and navy are present in the first example known from that country, in a tale told by an old seaman:

May I never see light if ev’ry chap as toed a line on her deck, from stem to starn, had’nt his body braced-up with a pair o’ braces crossing his shoulders for all the world like a galloot on guard.

The Sydney Gazette (New South Wales), 22 Jan. 1833.

The seafaring associations also appeared the following year in Jacob Faithful, a British work by Captain Frederick Marryat (still known a little for his children’s classic Coral Island). In it, a naval officer, messing about in a boat on the River Thames, nearly gets his four unpleasant civilian companions drowned, only to be saved by Jacob Faithful, a river boatman and the book’s narrator:

“Have you got them all, waterman?” said he. “Yes, sir, I believe so; I have four.” “The tally is right,” replied he, “and four greater galloots were never picked up; but never mind that. It was my nonsense that nearly drowned them; and, therefore, I’m very glad you’ve managed so well.”

Jacob Faithful, by Captain Frederick Marryat, 1834.

In the late 1860s it begins to appear in American publications without the military or seafaring associations but with the more general sense of a term of abuse for a person, usually male. However, the first known example in print from North America is in a comedy sketch and refers affectionately to a woman:

I felt a sentymental mood still so gently ore me stealin’, and I pawsed before Betsey’s winder, and sung, in a kind of operatic vois, as follers, improintoo, to-wit:
Wake, Betsey, wake,
My sweet galoot!
Rise up, fair lady,
While I touch my lute!

A syndicated tale by “Artemus Ward” (Charles Farrar Browne) in The Worthington Gazette (Indiana), 30 May 1866.

Its source is obscure, though it has been suggested it may be from the Dutch word gelubt for a eunuch or a corruption of Dutch genoot, a companion. Those current dictionaries that hazard a guess mention the Scots loot, a variant form of lout, prefixed by the ker- sound (modified to the spelling ga-) which may in this case be a reinforcement of the idea in the root.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Apr. 2015

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 April 2015.