going tonto

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Mon May 20 04:38:57 UTC 2002

Ayto's "Oxford Dictionary of Slang" (1999) shows "tonto" = "crazy" (from
"1982"). Ayto and Simpson show it = "foolish or crazy" (from "1973") in
"Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang" (1992). Both give it as "originally US"
and both put forth the derivation from Spanish "tonto" = "foolish". The
example given is from the "Times Literary Supplement". I can't find it in
any US book right away. Green's "Cassell Dictionary of Slang" also shows it.

Incidentally "Tonto" referring to a tribe/group of Apaches etc. appears in
Mathews from 1852. Here this is also derived from Spanish "tonto"
(supposedly these people were thought to be of low intelligence).

I don't know how well established the derivation from Spanish is in either
case. I'm still doubtful in the case of the new slang. A careful adoption
from Spanish (I think) would give "go tonto" = something like "go
slack-jawed" or "go catatonic" or "become stupefied", quite different from
"go ape" or "go nuts", which would correspond to the adopted "go loco" I
suppose. It might be that there was a semantic shift, perhaps under
influence of "tantrum", or something like "tonto y loco" similar to the
expression which James Landau pointed out. There was/is also a conventional
anecdote which I think dates back at least about 30 years (and which sounds
plausible) to the effect that Tonto had to be renamed in the Spanish-dubbed
version of the "Lone Ranger" TV show. The punch-line of this story no doubt
sometimes mutated in the telling from "you see, 'tonto' means 'stupid' in
Spanish" to "you see, 'tonto' means 'crazy' in Spanish". Thus I'm sure
there are thousands of US-ans who know [virtually] no Spanish but who
'know' that "tonto" means "crazy", just from this story. Even among these
however I think virtually all will interpret "go tonto" in terms of the TV
character. So I believe that *whatever* was in the mind of the first user
or inventor or translator of the expression (I still suspect it was
probably Tonto the TV character), it was/is generally interpreted and used
as "go wild-Indian" or so (to the extent that it's interpreted at all).
Young people now may not have seen the old TV shows; they probably know
nothing about Tonto's demeanor and care less; but everybody knows that
Tonto is an Indian. In this case I suspect that the folk etymology cannot
be distinguished with full certainty from the true etymology.

-- Doug Wilson

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