My Dad's Cockamamie Tale from the Bronx
It occurs to me that after my father passes, I may never hear the word “cockamamie” again.
Other words, too. Like hullabaloo, hanky-panky, life of Riley. But among all of the words embedded in my father’s vocabulary, cockamamie is my favorite. The sheer force of its syllables, its whimsical nature, its versatility.
It’s an old-fashioned word, to be sure. But my father is old. He turns 96 this week. I honor him by celebrating the vocabulary of his Bronx childhood.
Cockamamie, for those who do not know, is slang for mixed-up or implausible. And while it gained American popularity around 1960, cockamamie was already in use by New York City’s children starting in the mid-1920s. My father and his peers were ahead of the curve!
How do I know this? I stumbled upon a fascinating column by Ben Zimmer in Vocabulary.com about the etymology of cockamamie.
In A Far-Fetched Etymology That Seems a Little Cockamamie, Zimmer, a linguist and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, writes about the curious journey of the word – a journey that starts in Paris in 1862. “News was emanating from the city about a brand-new fad for ornamentation by means of ‘transfer pictures,’ going by the name decalcomanie.”
Soon thereafter it morphed into decalcomania as it traveled to England and Ireland, referring to ornamentation through designs made on paper. The term sailed across the Atlantic a year later, arriving in the U.S. in 1864. Once on U.S. shores, the word seems to have maintained its original meaning – referring to the fad of transferring pictures made on paper to decorate other surfaces.
You can probably see where this is heading. Decalcomania eventually morphed into the word decal, which became popular in the U.S. after World War II.
But before that, in the Bronx of my father’s childhood, decalcomania took a curious turn in the 1920s. The designs on paper became a popular form of cheap temporary tattoos kids put on their skin. The concept was fun but the word describing it was too long, so decalcomania was shortened to calcomania. And from there it was a simple matter of mispronunciation – not hard to do in a city populated by immigrants – before the word morphed into cockamamie.
These cheap, temporary tattoos called cockamamies were still linked to the original French meaning, as Zimmer writes, but on the streets of New York the word morphed again from noun to adjective. Meaning something of little value, ridiculous – possibly illegal. Or, as my father would say, a little bit crazy.
I’m a particular fan of Zimmer’s cockamamie post, but fellow word lovers may wish to check out his other columns on vocabulary.com, in which he tackles words like boondoggle and humdinger – both part of my father’s vocabulary. As for his column on the word “nerd,” I have to respectfully disagree. He writes: “Sometimes it's hard to believe nerd used to be mainly an insult.” It is? I was one, and I can certainly remember the term being far from flattering.
So happy birthday, Dad. I know this cockamamie gift is not worthy of your many decades of being the best father a girl could ask for. If it were up to me, I’d give you the life of Riley.