This nineteenth-century American confection – born of the same milieu that gave us such doozers as absquatulate – has all the ingredients for a right-down sock-it-to-’em emphatic in the best rolled-up-shirtsleeves style, right down to the rhythm: dum-DUHdadum. Makes you want to punch the strong beat with your fist. And the first syllable is that “sock” – not what you put on your foot but what you deliver square in the jaw, a smart knock – and then it dams up with that /d/ and bursts out, tumbling over the liquid, affricate, liquid, as your tongue flutters backwards from the tip.
It’s a real rock-’em-sock-’em-knock-’em-down word, not a ten-cent word but a silver dollar word, mayhaps even a sock-full-of-dollars word. Ah-yep, think of that: a sock of silver dollars. Swing that sucker and you’ll deliver a sockdolager to someone. Maybe yourself. You’ll hear the birdies chirping, or maybe the angel choirs singing you a doxology. At any rate, you’ll be as limp as a doll, a good deal more snookered than you’d get with lager or Goldschlager.
Well, that’s what a sockdolager is. Sure, it’s a doozie, a humdinger, a ripsnorting jim-dandy lollapalooza – to use a German word, a Schlager – but first of all (as the basis for all that other stuff) it’s a knock-out blow. A final punch, one that settles the hash, one that has the fat lady singing. A real sock to the head (by the way, that meaning of sock dates from as far back as the 1600s). And if you’re prone to delivering sockdolagers, you may be said to be a sockdologizing kind of person. (Note the spelling. You can also spell sockdolager as sockdologer.)
So it’s the kind of word you’ll see in Mark Twain (it’s used in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in reference to thunderclaps). But it’s also a word that was used in Scientific American in 1861: in a board of inquiry proceeding where a sailmaker was asked about a ship being too close to shore, the sailmaker replied that only the captain and the cook were allowed to think; it was reported that, in the view of the board, “The answer was a sockdologer” and the line of questioning was dropped. Four years later, sockdologizing came with a more literally final blow: during a peformance of the play Our American Cousin, just after an actor said the line “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, you sockdologising old man-trap,” as the audience was laughing, John Wilkes Booth fired the shot that killed Abraham Lincoln.
And what is the origin of this word? Just a made-up-because-it-sounds-good word? Some say so. But there are theories, and the one that gets the most play is this one, from The Atlantic Monthly of March 1893, page 425:
The distinctive test of good slang from bad is that it has a real meaning. Bad slang has no meaning; it is simply a succession of sounds which, because they come trippingly from the tongue, impose on the ignorant imagination of the hearer. When the mathematical professor silenced the fishwife by calling her a “scalene triangle,” a “parallelepiped,” and an “hypothenuse,” he used this weapon. As a rule, the slang of the very low classes, the thieves’ Latin, the “argot,” the “flash language,” is not inexpressive. Not only is its meaning clear enough to the initiated, but there is apt to be a vigorous and picturesque felicity in its terms when once their history is disclosed. For instance, the word “socdollager,” once quite current, was manifestly an uneducated man’s transposition of “doxologer,” which was the familiar New England rendering of “doxology.” This was the Puritan term for the verse of ascription used at the conclusion of every hymn, like the “gloria” at the end of a chanted psalm. Everybody knew the words of this by heart, and on doctrinal grounds it was proper for the whole congregation to join in the singing, so that it became a triumphant winding up of the whole act of worship. Now a “socdollager” was the term for anything which left nothing else to follow, a knock-down blow, a decisive, overwhelming finish, to which no reply was possible.
That’s all well and good, but the big question for me is whether there’s any support, or whether it’s just supposition because it sounds good and fits. If it’s the latter, it may yet be true, but there is a lot of pure etymological rubbish based on “sounds good and fits.” In the end, a clear citation trail is always the sockdolager required.
Thanks to Israel Cohen for suggesting sockdolager, and for pointing me towards the doxology theory and mentioning Schlager.