“The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang” defines a “boondoggle” as “an extravagant and useless project,” but behind the funny-sounding name is actual history. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Boy Scouts at summer camps spent their days not only swimming and playing games but participating in the latest scouting craze in which boys braided and knotted colorful strands of plastic and leather to fashion lanyards, neckerchief slides and bracelets. According to the March 1930 issue of Scouting magazine, Eagle Scout Robert Link of Rochester, New York, coined the term for this new handicraft—“boondoggling.”

While scouts continued to craft “boondoggles” during the Great Depression, few Americans had heard of them until they suddenly became front-page news on April 4, 1935, when the New York Times reported that investigating city aldermen had discovered that the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) had spent more than $3 million on training for unemployed white-collar workers that included instruction in ballet dancing, shadow puppetry and making boondoggles. Hundreds of unemployed teachers, who were paid $87 a month by the WPA, received two hours of boondoggling instruction as part of their training to establish recreational programs that showed children in poorer neighborhoods how to transform old cigar boxes, tin cans and other discarded materials into useful gadgets and ornamental crafts. “These projects are not carried on in Fifth Avenue,” insisted WPA official Grace Goselin, “but in sections of the city where the children who are benefiting would otherwise be in the streets.”

Republican critics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal pounced on the frivolous-sounding boondoggling activities as indicative of what they saw as the WPA’s wasteful spending, which included everything from operating a circus to eurhythmic dancing instruction. “It is a pretty good word,” Roosevelt admitted in a January 1936 speech before adding, “If we can boondoggle our way out of the Depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of Americans for many years to come.” The word indeed became part of the American political lexicon, but not in the way Roosevelt had hoped. Ironically, an activity that was part of an effort to encourage children to reuse waste materials has become synonymous with waste itself.