Three definitions for this word:
— an expensive and wasteful project usually paid for with public money
— attempt to deceive
— a braided cord worn by Boy Scouts as a neckerchief slide, hatband, or ornament
One theory suggests that “boondoggle” came from the name of leather toys Daniel Boone supposedly made for his dog. But the only theory supported by evidence is much simpler. In the 1920s, Robert Link, a scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts of America, apparently coined the word to name the braided leather cords made and worn by scouts. The word came to prominence when such a scout boondoggle was presented to the Prince of Wales at the 1929 World Jamboree.
In 1935, the New York Times reported that more than $3 million had been spent on recreational activities for the jobless as part of the New Deal. Included were crafts classes, which taught how to make with cloth or leather, ”boon doggles,” described as utilitarian “gadgets.”
Apparently Americans had been feeling the lack of a good word to describe unnecessary, wasteful, or fraudulent projects and pounced on “boondoggle” with delight.
It’s often used to refer to protracted government or corporate projects involving heavy expenditure, where at some point, the key operators realize that the project will never work. Generally there is an aspect of “going through the motions” — for example, continuing research and development — as long as funds are available to keep paying the relevant salaries.
Some projects seen as boondoggles may have unseen benefits that overshadow the initial problems. For example, the cost of construction of the Sydney Opera House ballooned over 1400 percent, but the building has since become an icon for the city and for Australia. The cost of the Space Shuttle vastly overran its initial estimates, but it was still able to carry out tasks unachievable by any other technology.
Mr Link, later a scoutmaster, 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.
It’s a long way from hat decorations to government overspending, but in either case, boondoggle is a delightful word.