Wednesday, September 25, 2013


David from Traverse City asked about the origin of the word cockamamie. Today, it means ridiculous and laughably implausible (what a cockamamie idea!), but it started out in a much different context.

In the 1860s, a particular art and hobby form came into prominence. It was called decalcomania, a combination of the French décalquer, to transfer a tracing, and manie, a craze. It involved the process of transferring pictures from specially prepared paper to surfaces of glass, porcelain, and the like.

In the 1920s and 1930s, American children were accustomed to finding cheap decals as a bonus in packs of gum. They were cheap temporary tattoos. I remember buying and using them in the 1940s. They usually represented cartoon characters. You would wet the back of your hand or your arm, then press and hold the decal until transfer was complete.

Somewhere along the line, decalcomania was shortened to the more childish cockamamie. What’s not clear is how a word for a temporary tattoo came to mean ridiculous and foolish. Perhaps it was the cheap and fragile nature of the ink and paper, or the often blurred image that resulted from an improperly or hastily applied image.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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