The word is an odd collection of syllables. It sounds strange to many ears. And the Vineyard is the only place in the world where the word is used, most notably at the famous crossroad in the center of Chilmark. But have you ever stopped to think where the word beetlebung comes from?

Please do not stop in the middle of Beetlebung Corner to ponder the question, but if you are up-Island on Tuesday, drive on through and come down to the Howes House in West Tisbury, where numismatic historian Eric Newman will speak about his study of the word and the history of its use.

On the Island it is generally known that the word comes from the beetlebung tree, known in other places as the tupelo tree, that grows in the moist, swampy places of the Island.

Mr. Newman, who is 99, has researched as far back as Shakespeare and hypothesizes that beetlebung is not just a tree, but a play on words.

In a recent interview at his Aquinnah home, he spoke about his research, prefacing the conversation with a warning: “I’m going to use a lot of crude words and coarse language with you.”

His interest in the word began with his passion for numismatics, or the study of currency, particularly in the area of Colonial American coinage and bills. While researching a counterfeiting operation that went on in a small town in Massachusetts, he came across the word Bungtown to describe the town where the counterfeiting of the British half pence was taking place.

“Bungtown was used in 1787 . . . and was one of the ways of calling a town something terrible,” Mr. Newman said. “Hooverville, Dumpville, Mudville and Jerkwater were early insults to towns.”

He continued: “I then decided I would find out how the slang term Bungtown developed,” he said. “I looked at all the dictionaries and all the studies trying to find the word bung. It was used during the 19th century on occasion.”

Mr. Newman’s curiosity led him to the word originating in Shakespeare’s plays, including The Tempest and Henry V. “I ran into the Renaissance beginning of the development of these words . . . in a dictionary of 1611 that has the translation of English and French words,” he said.

From his research and thorough reading of Shakespeare, he found that bung referenced a person’s rear end. “That was used in Shakepseare’s time as part of a joke and crude language,” Mr. Newman explained. Its origin was a small money pouch that merchants wore on their belt.

“You can see how much fun I had in researching this,” he said, laughing.

Mr. Newman tried to publish his findings, but was denied publication by several journals due to his lack of PhD. Even though he was an MIT graduate and prominent St. Louis lawyer, his hobby and passion could only take him so far. His article titled Shakespeare’s Fun with a Pun on Bunghole was eventually published in 1991, much to his delight.

“Then we got mixed up on Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Newman said, referring to his summer home. “Here we are a mile from Beetlebung Corner, and naturally I inquire what does Beetlebung mean and I find that this is a name that is only known on this Island, nowhere else in the world.”

Mr. Newman read his Vineyard history and learned about the tree whose wood was so hard that it was used for making both beetle and bung — in other words a mallet (beetle) and plug (bung) for the barrels used to store oil on whaleships.

“They think they made the wooden hammer out of a beetlebung tree and therefore the beetlebung tree being the source of the hammer and plug that this is the explanation . . .” he said. “It’s such a charming and funny name. But in my opinion it is not at all from the beetlebung tree.” He continued:

“Shakespeare definitely knew all about these terms and they were in the English language before the English came over to Martha’s Vineyard. They were in the language and someone got real funny about them.

“Somebody in my speculation figured out that you could use these two words together and it wouldn’t sound bad . . . and therefore the joke . . . would not catch on,” Mr. Newman said. He agreed he has no evidence to back this up. “This is what Shakespeare did. He rubbed words together,” he said.

He concluded: “All I’m saying is that it had to come from England, this is my reasonable probability, had to come from England by somebody who knew the Shakespearean language and introduced it here to mollify it to a degree as an acceptable funny word.”

Mr. Newman will be speaking about this research and the history of slang terms in the English language at his talk on Tuesday. “I know I’m going to get a lot of flack from this talk,” he said, smiling.


Mr. Newman wil be the featured speaker at Tuesday Conversation, this Tuesday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at the Howes House in West Tisbury.