If we can "boondoggle" ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come.
— President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Speech, 18 January 1936, to the New Jersey State Emergency Council
The word "boondoggle" refers to any fraudulent or dishonest undertaking, usually associated with wasting huge amounts of money on an enterprise of dubious value, typically as a result of political patronage. (This is the third political term we've dissected, the first being filibuster and the second red tape.) But where did it come from? It turns out the etymology of boondoggle is still unknown, it apparantly having become common circa 1935 to describe the money spent by Roosevelt's New Deal alphabet programs (CCC, FDIC, FERA, NRA, SEC, TVA, WPA, etc.) The quote above is Roosevelt's response to his critics. But first, a short skip to the origins.
The term "boondoggle" existed with the boyscouts long before it was used to describe Roosevelt's programs, supposedly being coined in 1927 by Robert H. Link, a scoutmaster, to describe the braided leather lanyards made by boyscouts to fritter away time at the campfire, and then worn as decoration. Link died in 1957, so nobody can ask him where he picked up the term. (Neither can anyone ask him if he used those amazingly strong braided cords for nefarious purposes.) Evidence, however, suggests the term may have been in use before Link; so much for "Scout's Honor." (Then again, how much "scouts honor" is there in persecuting gays, lesbians, and atheists or in raping young scouts? I mean, this is about the same amount of honor as one would find in the Roman Catholic Church...)
Now, the word came to prominence on 4 April 1935 when The New York Times ran a story about how jobless workers were being paid by the government to make lanyards from leather, rope, and canvas:
Boondoggle burst into the world with something of a bang, becoming an attack term immediately after its first recorded appearance in print. This occurred on April 4, 1935, in an account in The New York Times of an investigation into public-relief expenditures. Testifying the previous day before a committee of the Board of Aldermen (predecessors of today’s gender-neutral City Council), a Robert Marshall of Brooklyn said that he had been paid to teach “boon doggles.” Asked what he meant by this, he explained that “boon doggles is simply a term applied back in pioneer days to what we call gadgets today… . They may be making belts in leather, or maybe belts by weaving ropes, or it might be belts by working with canvas, maybe a tent or a sleeping bag.”
Mr. Marshall’s testimony, together with that of other witnesses who told of teaching tap dancing, manipulating shadow puppets, and building “A Temple of Time” (a watch and clock collection) for New York University, inspired the story’s headline, which began: $3,187,000 RELIEF IS SPENT TO TEACH JOBLESS TO PLAY, with the subhead, “BOON DOGGLES” made.
The word was off and running. In the next presidential election, in 1936, boondoggle was employed widely as both a noun and a verb by Republican critics of New Deal relief agencies. Boondoggling became a general term for what the GOP perceived as governmental wastefulness, and the responsible administrators were boondogglers. Nor could President Roosevelt pass this one up. He turned the word back upon the Republicans, describing international loans made under the GOP as foreign boondoggling.
"Why Do We Say That? 'Boondoggle'" Hugh Rawson, American Heritage
The big question, however, is where Link got the word or the idea for it. Another potential etymology is from Scottish, where boondoggle refers to winning a marble without any effort or receiving it as an outright gift. This has some plausibility, since "doggle" or "dogle" is the slang term for a marble, and it could easily have been combined with "boon" meaning gift or favor. The only problem is that the OED doesn't have any evidence the word was compounded in this fashion.
Some claim the word is drived to the Tagalog (Phillipine) word "bundok" for mountain, which was picked up by US soldiers during World War II and morphed into "boondocks" meaning any remote or wild area isolated from civilization. (Like, say, New Jersey.) The sense is allegedly that money was spent in remote areas according to the whims of the Roosevelt administration. The problem is that boondocks didn't show up in common parlance until about eight years after boondoggle. So this etymology shouldn't be given any credence.
The ultimate answer is that nobody really knows where the word originated. The only way Congress would fund a study of this boondoggle is if a congresscritter had an institute for etymology in his district. And, given the boondoggles Congress has funded, this one isn't so farfetched.