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Home / Columns / Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Goon

Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Goon

Understand this word better and prevent yourself from acting like one

columns Updated: Jan 10, 2020 20:26 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times
In India, “goon” requires no subtitles: the word, and the violent thugs themselves, are sadly ubiquitous in our country
In India, “goon” requires no subtitles: the word, and the violent thugs themselves, are sadly ubiquitous in our country(Gajanan Nirphale)

Goon (noun):a bully or thug, especially one who assaults or intimidates people

Usage:The goons who assaulted students at Jawaharlal Nehru University last Sunday could not have entered and left without the complicity of the police.

This is one word where the professional English etymologists and I don’t agree. I am convinced that it is a contraction of the Hindi word “goonda”, especially given the near-identical meaning.

But most Western authorities date it to an American usage in 1921, in U.S. humourist Frederick J. Allen’s piece “The Goon and His Style” (Harper’s Monthly Magazine, December 1921), which defines it as “a person with a heavy touch,” one who lacks “a playful mind.” Maybe in that sense it might have descended from the 16th century gony, or “simpleton”, which was applied by sailors to the albatross and similar big, clumsy birds, because a “gooney bird” was one whose awkward way of taking off and landing made it look stupid.. The word became used more widely in the US when “goons” became characters in the “Thimble Theater” comic strip (starring Popeye) by cartoonist E.C. Segar (1894-1938). The most famous was Alice the Goon, a slow-witted and muscular character initially depicted as a subhuman brute (but a gentle-natured one for all that).

However, the more commonly-used sense of a bully or thug surely comes from the “goondas” we know so well, perhaps because British POWs in German prisoner-of-war camps during the Second World War used the word “goon” to describe their guards as unintelligent thugs. That Indian meaning of a ruffian or violent thug has long supplanted the earlier American sense of a silly, foolish, or eccentric person. Today, what most English-speakers imagine when they speak of a goon is a slow-witted, unshaven, lumbering lout hired to intimidate people. Even in the US, the word “goon” is now widely applied to hefty thugs who accompany a mobster: “Al Capone never appeared in public without his goon squad around him.” The British comedian Spike Milligan’s The Goon Show (co-starring Peter Sellers) gave further currency to the word in the UK.

In India, of course, “goon” requires no subtitles: the word, and the violent thugs themselves, are sadly ubiquitous in our country. Like its Hindi parent, goonda, a goon is not a desirable thing to be, and yet goons are widespread: bigger nasties need them, so they are available to serve bad causes for a price, often a price they extract themselves with a fist or a knife. Goons can be – and are – students, politicians, even “leaders” in our debased political life. And they can be – and are – used to disrupt protests, beat up opponents, and intimidate decent people exercising their constitutional right to object to acts of government. They must be identified, arrested, tried and punished, if India is not to descend into a Goon(da) Raj.