So I was watching this program about Massachusetts that included a map that showed which Native American tribes were most prominent in various areas of the state. Around where we live the dominant tribe was the Wessagusset. Cool! Out towards western Mass, the name of a river tribe caught my eye: Podunk. Time to fire up the search engines…
I’ve been trying to educate myself about words or expressions that intentionally demean a race or ethnic group, like “thug” and “gyp.” I would be sorry if Podunk was one of these words. It’s so much fun to say. Loaded with plosives! P fires into the atmosphere, D drops the jaw, and K slams the word shut. I think it sounds like someone getting out of town for good, which is what people from Podunk often do.
To my relief, Podunk’s slang connotations don’t directly refer to the Podunk tribe. The Podunks—the word can mean both the tribe and the swampy land of their territory—had succumbed to Old World diseases and broken treaties by the mid 1700s. In the tribal sense they are extinct, but the Podunk name is preserved: on a river in Connecticut, on roads and various unincorporated areas, and on towns in several states, including Vermont, New York, and Connecticut.
Podunk became popular as a placeholder name for a small, dull, backward town in the later 1800s. (Another term for placeholder name is kadigan, which is my new-to-me word of the week.) In 1846 a Buffalo (NY) newspaper ran a series of Letters from Podunk that became wildly popular nationwide. The letters satirized the small-town/small-world perspective. Soon other writers, including Mark Twain, began making jokes about Podunk towns.
I mentioned the Podunk research to my husband Dave, who grew up in Massachusetts but had never learned about the tribe. “If it turns out to be problematic,” he said, “you could always use jerkwater instead.”
I hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Jerkwater (definition: “small/remote/insignificant”) is a less attractive word, even though it applies more broadly. Jerkwater town, politician, athletic program, etc. Like Podunk, Jerkwater also became popular in the later 1800s. Then it referred to towns where trains stopped solely because there was a handy stream to refill the boiler (requiring that workers “jerk” the water from the stream to the train).
Podunk and jerkwater. Places that people itch to leave. I know the feeling. When I was 11 my family moved from the bustling DC area to Richmond. Richmond wasn’t small, but it was still Podunk: slow-moving, faded, gossipy, and focused on the past. My friends who’d grown up in Richmond thought of it as a favorite blanket, cozy and comforting. To me it was a straitjacket. I wanted the excitement and possibilities of a real city.
During the later 1800s America underwent the Second Industrial Revolution, which included a major migration of people from rural areas to cities. From 1870 to 1920, an estimated 11 million people abandoned Podunks and jerkwater towns for city lights. During those years the population grew from 38 million to 106 million people.
My theory is that maybe these kadigans became popular because they were timely. People wanted to reassure themselves that giving up on Podunk and Jerkwater was the right decision. 1920 was the first time in US history when more people lived in cities than in the country. There were a lot of people looking for that validation.
The urban trend’s continued and intensified since. In 2021, about 83% of Americans live in urban areas (cities and suburbs), while about 21% live in rural (open country/small town) areas. Yes, those numbers sum to more than 100%; some urban areas contain rural areas within them.
There’s a growing longing these days for a return to a more community-connected, simpler, small-town life. Even I, a city-lover, sometimes am overwhelmed with such feelings here in my suburb. How a town with a horse farm and a number of residents who keep chickens or goats can feel too urban is hard to pinpoint, but it does. Maybe because there are almost 35,000 of us in 10 square miles? Besides, it’s easier to go rural now that we can bring along our electronics, sometimes our jobs, and get most anything delivered to our doorstep, even in the most jerkwater of Podunks.
I wondered if there was some antonym to Podunk on the rise, but I haven’t found one. We need a new kadigan. A name for a stodgy city that drives people to rural life, whose location can’t quite be pinned down…
Letters from Springfield?