A person called a goon may be one of two things: either a goofy, awkward sort of an individual, or a big towering bully or thug. The two kinds of goon may be very different sorts of people, but the designation of each arises from a common origin, one having to do with a lack of understanding.
The earliest recorded form of the word "goon" was gony, which first occurred in print during the late 16th century. Its precise origins are obscure, but it was likely a dialect word from Northern England or Scotland. A gony, gonnie, or gawney was a simpleton or fool, someone with slight intelligence who behaved in a manner that others found embarrassing. The citation in the Oxford English Dictionary describes an elderly “gonnie” dancing in an inappropriately youthful manner.
An extension of the awkward sense of the word was applied to certain large seabirds by the 19th century. A gony bird or gooney bird was particularly a grey albatross, awkward on land, which suffered in comparison to the more aesthetically appealing white albatross. Herman Melville, in The Encantadas, his 1854 novella of the Galapagos Islands, calls the “unsightly, unpoetic” grey albatross the “gooney bird.”
In 1933, E.C. Segar, the creator of the comic strip Thimble Theater and its hero Popeye, introduced a wide-shouldered, inarticulate, beady-eyed character who captured people at the bidding of the evil Sea Hag. While this creature had at first no name, it was soon identified as Alice the Goon, the leader of a people called the Goons, who were the unwilling tools of the Sea Hag’s machinations.
While Alice the Goon emerged in time as a sympathetic character, who acted as nanny to Popeye’s adopted baby Swee’Pea, the earliest appearances of this strangely menacing creature were striking enough to add another sense to the word goon, that of slow-witted professional bully. By 1938, the burly men hired by logging companies to break up union gatherings in the Pacific Northwest were called goons. Similarly, during the Second World War, Allied soldiers held in German camps called their captors goons.
The comedian Spike Milligan, both a veteran of this war familiar with the term for the enemy and a fan of Popeye’s adventures, named his 1951 BBC radio series The Goon Show. Its characters, the Goons, were, however, anything but menacing. They were, rather, straightforwardly silly, and Milligan’s program proved to be of significant influence on later comedy of the absurd type. Its title also went some way in returning the word goon back to its original, less ominous sense of a fool.
Another, more contemporary use of the word goon occurs in Australia, where huge bottles or jugs of inexpensive wine are called goons. By extension, packages of cask wine or box wine, which is distilled into plastic sacks and stored in cardboard boxes, are called goon bags.