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Lou Gehrig hits a home run.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images|

Lou Gehrig hits a sockdolager.

On the first day of May in 1920, Babe Ruth clubbed a big honker of a home run at New York's oddly shaped Polo Grounds. It was Ruth's first homer of the season, and his first as a member of the New York Yankees, and it came against Ruth's former team, the Boston Red Sox. In the subhed of a recap published the following day, the New York Times described Ruth's homer as "a colossal clout," which is a fun olde-timey way of saying someone whacked the bejeezus out of a baseball. Down in the body of the recap is the real gem: Ruth's huge dinger is described as "a sockdolager."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "sockdolager" as "a forceful blow," which certainly seems to fit the kind of mighty chop that sends a baseball over an outfield wall and out of a stadium and into an adjacent one, as Ruth's dinger reportedly did that day. "Sockdolager" is not a word you encounter too often anymore. There is a Sockdolager Rapid in Arizona; there was (until recently) a Sockdolager Brewing Company in Texas. Prior to randomly encountering it in this 1920 gamer, I am pretty sure I had never seen it before.

"Sockdolager" usage over time, showing growth through the 19th century and then a modest spike in the 1940s.
Graph via Google Books Ngram Viewer

Where did this kooky old word come from? Google can't find it in writing prior to 1828. The earliest instance I can find in print comes from 1830, in the May 15 edition of the Georgia Journal and Messenger, a newspaper published in Macon between 1823 and 1869. On that day the Journal and Messenger published something called a "Cracker Dictionary," which the paper's editors described as "suited to our vicinity," and which claims to offer definitions for regional words, presumably in the vocabularies of those descended from Geogia's original colonial settlers. "Sockdolager" may not be the only extremely obscure word to trace its tenuous foothold in the language to this demographic slang, or possibly just this document: "obsquatulate" and "sarsafarari" and "ramsquaddled" seem to have sprung from the same source, if not the same silly mind. The "Cracker Dictionary" definition of "sockdolager" is more specific, and poetic: "In fighting, a lick that tells."

Whether or not the Journal and Messenger originated the Cracker Dictionary or accurately represented the speech of locals, it soon made its way to other newspapers. The Middlebury Register and Addison County Journal, of Vermont, published a clipped aggregation 11 days later, describing the "heathenish terms" as "a specimen of the dialect" of Georgia's interior; "sockdolager" is one of the handful of words to have been chosen by the paper's aggregator. The Greenfield Gazette & Franklin Herald of Massachusetts picked it up a week later; The Western Statesman, of Indiana, pulled a somewhat more creative aggregation in mid-June, using a selection from the Cracker Dictionary's lexicon in a very fun paragraph.

According to the Cracker Dictionary of Georgia, Mr. Webster must obsquatulate or be knocked into a cocked hat, by a ring-tailed roarer; the whole of New England be ramsquaddled or chawed up; her delegation in Congress made to walk Spanish, or be used up by the Smarties; her farmers, manufacturers, and merchants take a lambasting from the superfrostical scrouger of Columbia College, or be tetotally twisted by the jimber-jawed Tarter-Grabbers; and her editors, most catawumpusly chunked [Heaven save us!] by a sockdolager.

Western Statesman

This circulation of the Cracker Dictionary probably accounts entirely for the introduction of "sockdolager" into very limited usage through the back half of the 19th century. The first newspaper record I can find of "sockdolager" being used in an honest sentence comes in 1838, in an edition of the Alexandria Gazette, which eight years earlier had republished the Western Gazette Cracker Dictionary item. The first instance I can find of it being used to describe a literal blow, as in a fight, comes from a humorous story called "Jones's Fight," which recounts a brawl between a Col. Dick Jones and his slanderous opponent, a man named Bill Patterson. The Mississippi Democrat published (or possibly republished) "Jones's Fight" in April 1845; in the story, recounting his glorious victory, Jones describes aiming "a sockdolager" at Patterson's head but missing his mark in such a way that his wrist is sprained, and he is forced to improvise.

“Oh! I forgot to tell you that: as I aimed a sockdolager at him he ducked his head, and he can dodge like a diedapper, and hitting him awkwardly, I sprained my wrist; so, being like the fellow who, when it rained mush, had no spoon, I changed the suit, made a trump, and went in for eating. In the scuffle we fell cross and pile, and while he was chawing my finger, I went in for chawing too; his woollen jeans breeches did not taste well, but I laid hold of a slug and gnawed it out; finding his appetite still good for my finger, I adopted Dr. Bones’, the toothsmith’s, patent method of removing teeth without the aid of instruments, and extracted two of his incisors, and then I could put my finger in or out at pleasure.”

"Jones's Fight," from the Mississippi Democrat

The word saw another boost in usage in the first half of the 20th century. Newspapers.com says it hit its peak in the decade starting in 1910, appearing in 1,348 clips. Google, which references a corpus of books, says "sockdolager" hit peak usage in 1941, when it accounted for five ten-millionths of one percent of all published words. Appearing in the Times, attached to a feat of Babe Ruth's, may have helped this along, but not by much: "Poop," never the most popular word outside of a handful of Defector Slack channels, accounted for one ten-thousandth of one percent of words in the Google archive in 2019, or exponentially more than "sockdolager" achieved at its all-time height.

My friends, that is going to change. Though the word "dinger" has served us well at Defector, there is a clear opening for a new (or very old) word to describe smashing a baseball into the hell of screaming baseballs. "Sockdolager" fits the bill. For one thing, it contains the word "sock," which has already been closely associated with the hitting of home runs: One may "hit" a homer but one only ever "socks" a dinger. For another, for as fun as it is to use as a noun, it becomes even funnier when twisted into a verb: He sure sockdolagered the shit out of that one! There's even a certain tortured onomatopoiesis to it, if you are willing to contort your brain just so.

Strictly speaking, "sockdolager" refers to the impact, the thwack, the hellacious force delivered to the object, but not to the result. In 2016, Giancarlo Stanton, then of the Marlins, smashed a baseball directly at then-Royals second baseman Brian Dozier, who flipped it to shortstop Eduardo Nuñez to start a quick double play. The ball left Stanton's bat at a scorching 122.2 miles per hour, then the fastest exit velocity ever recorded by Statcast. Whatever must be said of the result, it cannot be denied that Stanton sockdolagered the hell out of that baseball!

So: Not all sockdolagers are dingers, but every dinger socked is a sockdolager. Prepare to be reminded of this a lot over the course of the coming summer. Until "sockdolager" takes hold in your vocabulary, you may find yourself ramsquaddled by this development.

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