So, in Southern Africa, the term “palooka” is something you’ll hear very occasionally – and only from people who are probably about to throw a punch. But where does it come from and WTF does it mean?
I came across the term once more in a bridge dictionary, where it describes an inept bridge player. But this is also something I happened to hear long before I’ve ever encountered the term in bridge.
Here’s what I uncovered about the origins.
From the Dictionary (and More)
Noun. palooka (plural palookas) (US slang) A stupid, oafish or clumsy person. (US, boxing, bridge and similar ventures) Someone incompetent or untalented.
Now, according to the sources I checked out, the term gained popularity in 1920s America – and was mostly applied to boxing at first.
Being the 1920s, this could be how the term found its way to the game of bridge in the first place. People move from one game to the next, and one insult during kibitzing just happens to slip out – and it happened to be this one.
A Wiki user theorizes that it might originate from pagliuca, an Italian word that might – in this case – have turned insulting. (I guess calling someone a pagliuca would be similar to “dumb as straw” if the theory has any real weight.)
But does it?
According to the rest of the internet, the word palooka has no discernable origin other than the interesting internet theory (unless it means something in a language that I’ve missed – and in which case, I apologize).
Cartoonist Ham Fisher also created the character of Joe Palooka an everyman cartoon boxer (from 1930 to 1984), which is how I suspect this term found its way to South Africa.
What do you think?