This typically North American term for an unnecessary or wasteful project is often applied in two specific ways, either to describe work of little or no value done merely to appear busy, or in reference to a government-funded project with no purpose other than political patronage. It can also be used for an unnecessary journey by a government official at public expense.
Part of its oddity lies in its sudden emergence into public view in an article in the New York Times on 4 April 1935. This had the headline “$3,187,000 Relief is Spent to Teach Jobless to Play ... Boon Doggles Made”. The “boon doggles” of the headline turn out to be small items of leather, rope and canvas, which were being crafted by the jobless during the Great Depression as a form of make-work. The article quoted a person who taught the unemployed to create them that the word was “simply a term applied back in the pioneer days to what we call gadgets today”. He suggested that boondoggles had been small items of leatherwork which were made by cowboys on idle days as decorations for their saddles.
The word instantly became famous. It seems that Americans had been feeling the lack of a good word to describe unnecessary, wasteful, or fraudulent projects and leapt upon it with delight.
It had actually been around for some years, though attracting little notice. The first appearance of the word currently known is this, reporting the visit of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) to the World Boy Scouts Jamboree at Birkenhead, across the River Mersey from Liverpool:
The Prince also wore around his scout hat a “boondoggle,” which is a bright leather braided lanyard worn much in the manner of the hat cord used by the United States Army.
New York Herald Tribune, 3 Aug 1929.
A more expansive mention appeared in a British publication later in the month:
The chief scout has recently been presented by the University of Liverpool with a Degree, and by the scouts of America with a boondoggle. Of the two, I think I should prefer the boondoggle. Great as is the honour conferred by the Seat of Learning, there is a homely flavour about the other gift which touches the heart even more. “Boondoggle.” It is a word to conjure with, to roll around the tongue; an expressive word to set the fancy moving in strange and comforting channels; and it rhymes with “goggle,” “boggle,” and “woggle,” three of the most lighthearted words in the English language.
Punch, 14 Aug. 1929
The Daily Messenger of Canandaigua, New York, explained the background to this puzzling item on 20 August 1931:
The boondoggle, which leaped literally into fame overnight when it was introduced by Rochester Boy Scouts at the jamboree in England, is a braided lanyard on which various things such as whistles can be hung. So fascinating do the boys find it, that they have spent practically all their spare time on the work.
This is confirmed by a report of a scout camp the following year, which also suggests a broader meaning for the word as a type of leatherwork:
Several thousand yards of boondoggle material have also been stocked in the craftshop to meet the demand of scouts for making lanyards, whistles, cards, bells, hatbands, neckerchief slides, a craft which last year consumed over 3000 yards of imitation leather braid.
Oakland Tribune, 29 May 1932.
On 6 April 1935, two days after the New York Times article appeared, a contrary view about the origin of the word was published in a syndicated snippet in the Nevada State Journal:
“The word ‘boondoggle’ was coined out of the blue sky by Robert H. Link, eagle scout,” wrote Hastings. “It has absolutely no significance except that it has come to mean a good-looking addition to the uniform.”
Mr Link, later a scoutmaster, was also said to have been its originator in an item in a magazine called Word Study later the same year. He is now often quoted in reference works as its inventor. As all the early appearances of boondoggle — none before 1929 — are in connection with Scouts’ lanyards, it is indeed likely that it was created in that milieu. The stories about cowboys and pioneer days have nothing going for them apart from the guesses of one person reported in the 1935 New York Times article.
It was that article that converted boondoggle from a word existing quietly in its own small world to one of public importance and continuing usefulness.