“Palooka” apparently first appeared in the sports pages of the early 1920s and was used to describe an inept, clumsy, and none-too-clever and none-too-admirable athlete, especially a prizefighter. Gradually, “palooka” also came to serve as shorthand for a thug and finally as a synonym for a “loveable big lug.”
For Me, at Least, It All Goes Back to the Movies
What I first remember about the word “palooka” was hearing it thrown around a lot in those black and white 1930s-1940s Warner Bros movies I used to watch on TV as a kid at all hours – you know, the kind of gritty dramas where all the men were tough and wore either flat wool “newsboy” caps or wide-brimmed, high-crowned fedoras, all the cars had running boards, and a lot of exclamatory sentences include the word “see” (“Those East Side boys better do it my way, see, or there’s gonna be trouble!”).
For sure, in these films “palooka” was used as a generic, usually derogatory, term for a pugilist or in a larger sense, for a clumsy, almost Neanderthal kind of male with some degree of thugishness thrown in.
But in some of those movies from the same time, “palooka” came to denote a more positive type of male individual — young, broad-shouldered, firm-jawed, perhaps not that imaginative but certainly forthright — all those Swedes, Poles, Bohemians, Irish and other ethnic Americans who did the heavy lifting in countless steel mills, foundries, tanneries, and assembly lines in America’s industrial heartland.
And from this kinder, gentler use of “palooka” the word was sometimes employed in real life as well as in films as a term of affection and familiarity, both in male-to-male communications (“Alright you bunch of palookas, our job is to take out that machine gun nest, win the war, and go home!”) and in female–to-male expressions (“ You big palooka, c’mon and give me a hug!”).
The Comic Strip, Film and TV
The transformation in meaning for “palooka” from primitive to sort-of-noble was due almost entirely to the “Joe Palooka” comic strip, which was published from 1930 up to 1982, and which at the height of its popularity ran in over 800 newspapers as well as in numerous comic books.
Ham Fisher, the strip’s creator, depicted the character of Joe Palooka as a successful prize-fighter, a skilled athlete at the top of his game, a gentle giant, and a white-knight defender of “the little guy,” not to mention damsels in distress. What was not to like, especially during the Great Depression, when ordinary readers dreamed of having someone like Joe Palooka in their corner. During WWII, Joe was shown to fight the Nazis to great effect, of course.
During the 1930s, a feature film, and a series of “shorts” were produced; in the 1940s, 11 low-budget films were created. “Joe Palooka” became an early TV series in 1954.
The Current Linguistic State of Palooka-ism: Palookaville
No one really uses the term “palooka” any more, except in one case, which oddly enough, has everything to do with the late actor Marlon Brando.
In the 1954 film On the Waterfront, a young Brando plays Terry Malloy, a longshoreman who formerly had been a rising boxer who then lost his career when his brother Charley (played by Rod Steiger) forced him to take a dive in a crucial match.
In a powerful scene that sets the gold standard for method acting, Brando’s character bitterly reminds his brother Charley that upon blowing that fight, all he got was “… a one-way ticket to Palookaville! …You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me… I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody…”
Palookaville. And there you have it. Besides being the title of Fatboy Slim’s 2004 album, Palookaville is now a place on the terrain of the soul, where both washed-up fighters and dreams go to die. Come on. Admit it. We’ve all visited that location at some point, or have gotten pretty close to it.
Or conversely, and more hopefully, Palookaville might not be just a destination for the heartbroken, but instead a state of mind or maybe somewhere real that someone, including us, can escape from.