poon-tang (was Re: [ADS-L] your most sought word or phrase origins?

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Dec 15 14:08:45 UTC 2006

Quoting "Douglas G. Wilson" <douglas at NB.NET>:

>> [....] Here's one of many which I've looked at: "poontang".
>> Dictionaries derive
> this from French "putain" (some say 'perhaps', 'probably', etc.). However
> AFAIK there is no supporting 'paper trail': this derivation is just a
> plausible speculation. I agree that it is plausible, *maybe* the most
> plausible ... but I see a few other more-or-less plausible derivations
> (which I've presented here, I think). Let's establish one with real
> evidence! This is difficult!
> [....]
> -- Doug Wilson

Thanks. I've now read the interestingarchives on this. A few small
Unless I've misread (which could be), 1927 is still the earliest certain
recorded date for this word with the OED definitions. On the other hand, it's
still a bit uncertain which of three authors was the first to have written
poon-tang. The date of John O'Hara's letter is simple, but the Thomas
Wolfe use
can be at least somewhat antedated. And the "Oh Mister Mitchell" song is known
from a 1929 recording, but may (?) have been written and performed
earlier? So,
one question: is it possible that both O'Hara and Wolfe got it from the song?
Both, for instance, were in New York in time to hear, for example, Clara Smith
perform there. (Trivia: IIRC I first heard the word in NY.) So far, I found no
date for the song by New Orleans-born Spencer Williams (1889?-1965). Is that
known? Has anyone looked at his lyrics to see if he typically made up such

As you know, Look Homeward, Angel has the word poon-tang three times
(1929), on
pages 166, 174 and 343. This book is a famously-edited version of Wolfe's
manuscript O, Lost. Apologies if this has been remarked before, but O,
Lost has
the term, also, though only once (the same words as p. 166 of LHA: He takes it
out in Poon-Tang.). That's page 180 in the 2000 publication of O, Lost. LHA
pages 174 and 343 have the word: the pages in O, Lost that correspond in other
words are pages 195 and 377, respectively. O, Lost was completed in March 1928
(according to a chronology in Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe); it's at least
plausible that this section (180) was written in 1927. O, Lost p. 195: You've
been on a Frigging Frolic in Niggertown; LHA 174: You've been on a Poon-Tang
Picnic in Niggertown. O, Lost page 377 presents a minor curiosity. Where LHA
343 has A fellow's got to have a little Poon-Tang, hasn't he?, O. Lost 377 has
A fellow's got to have a little snooey, hasn't he?  snooey--sic. That's a new
one to me.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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