Where is Podunk?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
You’re not the first guy to wonder about this, Tomaso. As a matter of fact, the search for Podunk, the archetypal jerkwater town, is one of the great adventures of philology, which, as you can probably appreciate, is not a field that has great adventures in abundance.
Allow me to quote from a letter to the editors of the Daily National Pilot, Buffalo, New York, 1846: “I hear you ask, `Where in the world is Podunk?’ It is in the world, sir; and more than that, is a little world of itself. It stands `high up the big Pigeon [river],’ a bright and shining light amid the surrounding darkness.” There is a great deal more, all in a satirical vein, indicating that even then Podunk was thought to be a locality which, being imaginary, one might safely have a little fun with.
The idea that Podunk was purely mythical survived a long time. In 1925 philologist G.P. Krapp noted that no Podunk was to be found in the list of American post offices, which he took to be proof of the town’s nonexistence — an alarming conclusion, given current opinions of the post office, but Krapp’s was an innocent age. His one concession to the reality of Podunk was that it was an Indian word that had been applied to a few minor geographic features in New England.
In 1933 a Boston Herald columnist was simply restating the common wisdom when he observed that “Podunk, like Atlantis, has no locus.” But even as Troy had its Schliemann, so did Podunk have its believers. One E.A. Plimpton promptly wrote to the Herald that there was a settlement called Podunk; that it might be found near Worcester, Massachusetts; and that he himself had a summer home there.
This was unsettling news, and as often happens with unsettling news, people chose to ignore it. But the truth could not be suppressed forever. A few years later the etymologist Allen Walker Read, who was later to earn everlasting glory for his explication of “OK” (see More of the Straight Dope: What does “OK” stand for?) reported that the name Podunk had been applied to veritable heaps of places and persons throughout the northeast: to a brook flowing into the Connecticut River near Hartford; to a meadow near the said brook; to a band of Indians living near the meadow; to a different meadow 15 miles southwest of Worcester; to a pond near this latter meadow; and, under various spellings, to ponds, creeks, and meadows throughout New York State. Professor Read opined that Podunk derived from an Algonquin Indian word meaning “a boggy place.”
In 1941 word of Read’s work apparently found its way to the editors of the Boston Herald. They recalled that they had failed to follow up on a clue regarding Podunk that had appeared in their own pages years earlier. Filled with shame, they decided something needed to be done. Characteristically, however, they decided someone else should do it. They nominated the Worcester Telegraph to mount an expedition to establish once and for all whether a town called Podunk existed. The Telegraph accepted the challenge and assigned one William H. Moiles to the job.
“Early on a bright November morning,” a later account of the expedition noted, “his safari shoved off from the Telegraph office, and by noon it had forded Seven-Mile River and was headed south into the rain forest along the East Brookfield River.” Arriving in East Brookfield without further clues to Podunk’s whereabouts, Moiles demonstrated the resourcefulness of a true journalist: he went into a tavern and asked the bartender. Driving in the indicated direction, he encountered a small boy with his thumb out.
“`Where’re you going?’ we asked.
“`Up by the old Podunk school,’ he said.
“`Where is Podunk?’ we asked, failing entirely to suppress a quiver of anticipation.
“`This is Podunk now,’ said the small boy.
“He said it calmly, quietly, almost wearily. But we felt like Balboa.”
It was later established that Podunk was an unincorporated area about six square miles in extent containing about 100 families. It is located mostly within East Brookfield, a town about 15 miles west of Worcester. Whether there is now a historical marker on the site I don’t know, but if not, and the citizens of Massachusetts have any salt in them, they will see to it forthwith.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.