After President Trump insulted anchor Mika Brzezinski on Twitter, the usual round of condemnation, excuses, and shrugs ensued. But one response was far less predictable, as Senator Orrin Hatch brought an old term back to prominence, saying: “Every once in a while you get a dipsy-doodle.”
This old-fashioned, folksy term has mainly referred to deceptions, evolving from a word for a tricky pitch in baseball. This is a colorful word and exemplary member of the ludicrous lexicon of doodles, which encompasses chicanery, nonsense, and flubs — plus Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons.”
Hatch may have been thinking of the 1937 song “The Dipsy Doodle” by Tommy Dorsey. The whimsical lyrics describe a condition that easily could lead to ill-advised tweets: “The dipsy doodle is the thing to beware / The dipsy doodle will get in your hair / And if it gets you, it couldn’t be worse / The things you say will come out in reverse.” In other words, everyone makes a whoopsy-daisy at some point when speaking or, these days, tweeting.
The origin of “dipsy-doodle” appears to stem from “dipsy-do” — also spelled “dipsy-doo” and “dipsy-dew” — a type of unpredictably dipping screwball perfected by pitcher Carl Hubbell, who played for the New York Giants from 1928 to 1943. The term is older than Hubbell, though, going back to at least 1910, as Ben Zimmer notes in The Wall Street Journal. This sense led to “dipsy-doodle” as a word for trickery, scams, and flim-flams. Raymond Chandler’s 1942 novel “The High Window” contains an example of the criminal meaning: “I opened the front door, leaving the key in the lock. I wasn’t going to work any dipsy-doodle in this place.” In 1982, Ronald Reagan invoked a similar sense when disparaging a Democratic Party claim about the deficit as “a real dipsy-doodle.”
“Dipsy-doodle” has continued to show up in discussions of sports, usually to describing cunning, unpredictable maneuvers. A LiveJournal blog about the New York Jets describes a deceptive offensive sequence as “some kind of dipsy-doodle option play.” The Sporting Charts website describes the NHL version of dipsy-doodle as “a player who is making fancy moves, usually around multiple players, involving both stickhandling and zig-zagging or multi-directional skating.” Like the original screwball, these dipsy-doodles baffle the eye to confound opponents.
Sometimes the term is used for irregular motions that aren’t as deliberately deceptive. A 2010 Huffington Post article by Laura Penny used the term for something that is always going up or down: “The economic costs of this way of thinking are becoming more and more obvious, with each stock market dipsy-doodle, with each new set of unemployment numbers, in the growing gulf between the rich and the poor.”
The history of “doodle” is similarly disreputable. A doodle has been a fool since the 1600s. The same goes for “fopdoodle.” Back in 1845, the English statesman Richard Cobden bemoaned the “Noodles and Doodles of the aristocracy.” The most common sense of “doodle” as a rough sketch has a certain casualness that fits well with the other meanings: doodling is rarely confused with creating a masterpiece. Some have compared to Hatch to Ned Flanders of “The Simpsons.” The character is known for his folksy vocabulary of “diddlys” and “doodlys.” Flanders’s absurd coinages resemble a term in circulation since Shakespeare to represent a rooster’s call: “cock-a-doodle-doo.”
“Doodle” is also synonymous with malarkey and horsefeathers. Since the 1800s, “flapdoodle” has been a word for nonsense. Several early uses recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang describe flapdoodle as “the stuff they feed fools on.” A major nonsense merchant (such as a politician) can also be called a flapdoodler. “Flapdoodle” is probably a variation of “fadoodle,” which means the same. “Monkey doodle” is foolishness, and anything or anyone described as “wackadoodle” is more crazy than foolish — though a Venn diagram of the two terms would show a substantial overlap.
Even if you think Hatch was being a flapdoodler in his defense of Trump, the senator deserves a thank you for resuscitating a classic Americanism in an increasingly diddly-doodly world.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.