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Huckleberry

Q From Cristlyn Randazzo: What is the origin of the expression ‘I’ll be your Huckleberry’? What exactly does it mean?

A What it means is easy enough. To be one’s huckleberry — usually as the phrase I’m your huckleberry — is to be just the right person for a given job, or a willing executor of some commission. Where it comes from needs a bit more explaining.

First a bit of botanical history. When European settlers arrived in the New World, they found several plants that provided small, dark-coloured sweet berries. They reminded them of the English bilberry and similar fruits and they gave them one of the dialect terms they knew for them, hurtleberry, whose origin is unknown (though some say it has something to do with hurt, from the bruised colour of the berries; a related British dialect form is whortleberry). Very early on — at the latest 1670 — this was corrupted to huckleberry.

As huckleberries are small, dark and rather insignificant, in the early part of the nineteenth century the word became a synonym for something humble or minor, or a tiny amount. An example from 1832: “He was within a huckleberry of being smothered to death”. Later on it came to mean somebody inconsequential. Mark Twain borrowed some aspects of these ideas to name his famous character, Huckleberry Finn. His idea, as he told an interviewer in 1895, was to establish that he was a boy “of lower extraction or degree” than Tom Sawyer.

Also around the 1830s, we see the same idea of something small being elaborated and bombasted in the way so typical of the period to make the comparison a huckleberry to a persimmon, the persimmon being so much larger that it immediately establishes the image of something tiny against something substantial. There’s also a huckleberry over one’s persimmon, something just a little bit beyond one’s reach or abilities; an example is in David Crockett: His Life and Adventures by John S C Abbott, of 1874: “This was a hard business on me, for I could just barely write my own name. But to do this, and write the warrants too, was at least a huckleberry over my persimmon”.

Quite how I’m your huckleberry came out of all that with the sense of the man for the job isn’t obvious. It seems that the word came to be given as a mark of affection or comradeship to one’s partner or sidekick. There is often an identification of oneself as a willing helper or assistant about it, as here in True to Himself, by Edward Stratemeyer, dated 1900: “ ‘I will pay you for whatever you do for me.’ ‘Then I’m your huckleberry. Who are you and what do you want to know?’ ”. Despite the obvious associations, it doesn’t seem to derive directly from Mark Twain’s books.

Short question, long answer!

Page created 14 Dec. 2002

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Last modified: 14 December 2002.