So is it a fruit, a verb or a dog as in Huckleberry Hound? Could it be a friendship? Well there are seven famous friendships that pop to mind: Achilles and Patroclus, Lewis Carroll and Alice, Robinson Crusoe and Friday, John Smith and Pocahontas, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the Lone Ranger and Tonto , and of course the infamous ragamuffins Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. How I'm your huckleberry. came to be given as a mark of affection or comradeship to one's partner or sidekick, as in the best man for the job. Frequently along with a naming of oneself as a willing helper or assistant, the phrase is on many top ten lists of favorite quotes from Hollywood films, "I'm your huckleberry" Doc Holliday says to Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, filmed here in Tucson by the way! It was the context and in the way he said it that makes the scene such a defining moment.
Most etymologists will own up to the idea that idiomatic phrase could be making a vague allusion to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn who were close friends in their youth. Xrefer has a nice summary of the story and its impact upon literature:
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885); (Mark Twain) give(s) a vivid evocation of Mississippi frontier life, faithfully capturing Southern speech patterns and combining picaresque adventure with moral commentary.The first linguistic break with British tradition was made by Mark Twain's Huck Finn. Previous writers had generally followed the British literary pattern, but Twain used the forms and cadences of the American South in which dialect predominates and proved that North American English could provide its own literary idiom.
" All kings is mostly rapscallions." (Huckleberry Finn)
This classic nineteenth century literature piece was Mark Twain, speaking through the voice of a semi-literate runaway boy, inducing the mythic magnitude of the river and universal truths about mankind. --" There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."-- 'The beauty of Huck Finn', says Perry Miller, 'is that the boy sees all there is to see about human depravity, violence, skullduggery, as well as virtually all which is noble, lovely, self-sacrificing, and that he tells about both without yielding to florid language.' Growing up can sometimes strain friendships and one dictionary defines this quaint Southernism as: "Blueberries found in the woods." It's not too hard to imagine these two blueberries stumbling their way through the berried briar patches known as 'growing up."
It's not really a blueberry, say botanists though it's easy enough to be confused as one. The word huckleberry is first found in American English dating around the year 1670, most likely a variation of hurtilbery or the common name "whortleberry," derived from Old English horte. Bearing edible fruits and related to the blueberry the New World shrubs with glossy black many-seeded berries are from the genus Gaylussacia. These may be eaten raw or cooked as in pies, used in preserves, or used to make wine and spirits.
These small dark colored sweet berries that greeted European settlers arriving in the New World, reminded them of the native English bilberry and other similar fruits. One of them was the hurtleberry, some experts relate that it may have to do with hurt from the bruised color of the berries; this was then corrupted to huckleberry.
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, by J.E. Lighter (Random House, New York, 1997) records a number of descriptions: "1.minuscule amount. 2. a fellow; character; boy. "one's huckleberry," the very person for the job. 3. bad treatment. "the huckleberry" is similar to "the raspberry." 4. a foolish, inept or inconsequential fellow. "
From the first and fourth descriptions meanings it's obvious that the word can have opposite meanings. To understand the meaning comes from how a person uses it in context. Other huckleberry phrases mentioned in sources are: "above one's huckleberry" meaning, " beyond one's abilities' and "huckleberry train," as in a train that stops at every station.
"Huckleberry" was universally used in the 1800's in combination with "persimmon" as a small unit of measure. "I'm a huckleberry over your persimmon" was intended by the speaker to mean, "I'm just a bit better than you." Because 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 and since a persimmon is so much larger it immediately sets up an image of something tiny against something substantial. Hence a huckleberry over one's persimmon, becomes a phrase indicating just a little bit beyond one's reach or abilities; one instance of this meaning can be found in John S C Abbott's 1874 David Crockett: His Life and Adventures: "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".
During this era of American history "huckleberry" came to stand for two idioms. First, it represented a small unit of measure, a tad. Here's one illustration from 1832: "He was within a huckleberry of being smothered to death". Also as it were, someone who was a huckleberry could be a small, unimportant person--usually spoken as irony in teasing self-depreciation that may have led to the more conventional meaning. In the words of the Dictionary of American Slang: Second Supplemented Edition (Crowell, 1975):
- "A man; specif., the exact kind of man needed for a particular purpose. 1936: "Well, I'm your huckleberry, Mr. Haney." Tully, "Bruiser," 37. Since 1880, archaic.
By the end of the century Edward Stratemeyer was writing "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?" in his novel True to Himself. The remarkable variety of connotations given the humble "huckleberry" in late 19th century America would certainly have been familiar with what Stratemeyer was saying. By the 1900's the Dictionary of American Regional English defined, "huckleberry" to mean, in addition to, "the desired or suitable person" for a task, but also an all-around nice person or even "sweetheart" because, huckleberries could be special, too, as in the phrase "the only huckleberry on the bush," signifying something unique.
In addition to the measurement connections the meaning of the word took on a variation of the same theme, "a small amount or distance" or even "a negligible thing or person." In fact, Twain himself used the word in this less than flattering sense in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in 1889. Speaking of King Authur's Court one scholar relates: "The phrase has ties to Arthurian lore. A Knight, coming to the service of a damsel would lower his lance and receive a huckleberry garland from the lady (or kingdom) he would be defending. Therefore, "I am your huckleberry" may well have been spoken to the Earps and the statement's meaning may be "I am your champion"."
All of this turn of the century huckleberry madness simply because Early American colonists discovered the native American berry and mistook it for the European blueberry known as the "hurtleberry."
The Macmillan Encyclopedia 2001, © Market House Books Ltd 2000
Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)) excerpts from chapter 23Xrefer