The NC Origins of “Goofy”

Reading Charles Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” recently, I was admiring, among other things, the word “goopher” itself. In the story, and in African American folk tales, a goopher is a spell or curse put on a person or thing. You often see references to “goopher dust,” which the conjurer would sprinkle upon whatever it was he wanted to inflict. This is one of those great words that is used as a noun, adjective, and verb.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites Chesnutt’s story, first published in 1887, with the first published use of the word. However, the Dictionary of American Regional English lists an 1880 appearance of “goopher” in William Wells Brown’s My Southern Home.

I had been lamenting to colleagues here about the disappearance of the word from common conversation as I thought it had many practical uses, such as, for example, “It sure is hot today. If I stay out there for more than a few minutes I feel like I’ve been goophered.” But then, as I looked through the dictionaries, it occurred to me that a variation of goopher may still be used, though with a slightly different meaning. The word “goof” or “goofy,” meaning silly, didn’t start to appear in written works until the 1920s. The OED doesn’t list an origin, citing it simply as “slang,” but I think it’s connected to goopher. Certainly somebody who had been goophered would behave in a manner well out of the ordinary, and it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a connection between the two words.