This excellent word (“Origin unknown”) is best explained by quoting the OED’s citations:

1936 Allen & Lyman Wonder Bk. Air 312 A modoc, the derivation of which is obscure, is a flashy chap who goes around wearing helmet and goggles, and more than likely, leather boots and riding breeches, too, and talking about the big things he is going to do for aviation. 1942 Berrey & Van den Bark Amer. Thes. Slang §756/2 Modock, one who has taken up aviation for publicity, social, or similar reasons. 1960 Wentworth & Flexner Dict. Amer. Slang 341/2 Modoc, one who becomes an Air Force flier for publicity, social prestige, or similar reasons.

As far as I can tell by googling, the word is dead as a mackerel, which is a pity—it has a fine slangy ring to it. (Found at The Sensible Ass, a blog which makes a habit of listing odd and interesting words.)
Update. According to Mike (in the comments), modock (as he spells it) “is currently used by a large group of U.S. pilots”; I am happy to retract my statement that it was dead as a mackerel. Mike is interested in the early history of the word, so if you know anything about it, please e-mail him (click on his name in the comments for the address).


  1. Seems weird not to mention the possibility of a connection with Modoc County, California. (Northeast corner of the state.) Didn’t the story about Ishi, the last Yahi, occur in the early 1900’s?

  2. Here is a link that gives a derivation of “Modoc” as in Modoc Indians, the Modoc War, and Modoc County: “Modoc is from the word Moadokkni, meaning ‘Southerners.’ Their kindred tribe, the Klamath, refer to them as Moadok Maklaks, ‘people of the south.’ In their own language, the Modoc call themselves Maklaks, meaning ‘people.'”

  3. Apaches. Those were the french dudes that wore those striped shirts and threw their women around on the dance floor, right?
    Captain Jack was a Modoc, the country he made his last stand in is amazingly surreal, with quiet volcanoes and fields of hardened lava. This is an OK version of the events at the end of his life.
    The Modoc War
    Here’s a picture of Captain Jack and an example of an alternative medicine’s alternative to the malpractice suit.
    Captain Jack’s Stronghold

  4. Seems weird not to mention the possibility of a connection with Modoc County, California
    Except that it’s hard to imagine what such a connection might be, unless there happened to be an early hotshot pilot from there who was called “Modoc” the way other guys are called “Tex”… but then you’d expect the word would have been connected with him. The county is presumably named after the Indian tribe.

  5. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang antedates the OED by a little bit: 1933 Stewart Airman Speech 78: Modock: One who talks about aviation but never flies.
    It also includes two other cites not used by the OED. I do not have any earlier cites, nor did a simple search in the usual places turn anything up.

  6. As an aside, I absolutely love Captain Jack’s Stronghold and that whole area. Much of my family is from the Klamath area, and it’s an amazing place to visit. One of the Oregon-California borderland’s many jewels.

  7. Modock is currently used by a large group of U.S. pilots. The group uses the term as derogitory way to describe a pilot who looks the part but isn’t a true aviator. However, there is some contoversy as to its true meaning and origin. The group feels that the term has been around since 1921 but that fact is still unsubstantiated. There is also some question whether a man named Cy Caldwell coined the term. Caldwell was a known humorist and columnist for an aviation magazine, as well as a pilot, in the 1930s. If so, why did he use the word ‘modock.’ If there is anymore information on the the term ‘modock,’ as it applys to pilots or the aviation community, I would love to know more.

  8. Modock is used by a large group of pilots to describe one who talks more about his flying antics than actually doing them.

  9. John W Bettridge says

    There is quite a myth/legend about an early family member and it is much written about. In 1170. a Man from Wales, by the name of MADOG, reportedly sailed from there to what is now Mobile Bay, Alabama. I wonder if the MODOC, Indians got their name from him, based on a piece about a “Boston Charley” of the MODOC’S, who was very white. Reportedly Madog, mixed with Indians, and the result was white Indians. That is they had white hair and blue eyes. They say, this was noticeable among the MANDANS, of North Dakota.

  10. There is a Modoc South Carolina. They have a racetrack that I believe is the Mococ Speedway. My lifelong friend, Dave, his Dad was Lt. Colonel Fred Smith. I remember him talking about having an Oldmobile of Buick or whatever it was and saying “that car would really modock.” I still say modock with that use but did not know that it referred to flying. I like it.

  11. In an episode of the Virginian in 1966 an episode introducing Harrison FORD was premiered called,
    “The Modoc Kid.”
    Apperently they knew what a Modoc was in 1966.

  12. Owlmirror says

    Since the original 2003 posting, more has been added to the OED:

    1931 Technol. Rev. Nov. 66/2 If a person attaches himself to aviation solely for social or publicity reasons..he is called a modock, a purely synthetic term..originally advanced by one Cy Caldwell, aeronautical humorist, who claimed it meant less than nothing in delicatessen Greek.
    1933 C. K. Stewart Speech Amer. Airman (M.A. thesis, Univ. of Akron) 78 Modock, one who talks about aviation but never flies.

    A bit of searching turned up an article titled “Beyond Keewee and Modock”, in the “The Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker for 1928-01-07. I was a bit puzzled as to how to copy the text of the salient bits, when it occurred to me that there might be a Wiki page for the topic, and lo, there is: the Quiet Birdmen. The text of the card appears in the New Yorker, and on the card image on the Wikipedia page:

    The bearer is a member ye Anciente and Secret Order of
    Quiet Birdmen
    founded 1921
    And is a certified goodfellow. He has mounted alone into the realms beyond the reach of Keewee and Modock and should be accorded all gestures of friendship and aid by fellow Quiet Birdmen wherever they may meet.

  13. Owlmirror says

    If a “modock” is a boastful wanna-be/hanger-on, a “keewee” might be an amateur, a newbie.

    [EDIT: Shoulda searched.]

    Pilots’ Place at airport honors aviators who have ‘gone west’

    A keewee is a “term contemptuously applied to any ground officer of the Air Service,”

  14. Owlmirror says

    Huh. Looks like the above source may not be entirely correct.

    The Mystery of the Quiet Birdmen

    Whilst many of the pages of Brooks’ welcome booklet to the QB are missing, we were able to find out what the peculiar Keewees and Modocks were: “In QB lingo, a Keewee is a person connected with aviation but not a pilot. A Modock is a person not a pilot, and not even connected with aviation, but given to basking in the reflected glory of pilot acquaintances.”

  15. An excellent antedate!

  16. Owlmirror says

    Smithsonian Institute page for the Quiet Birdmen booklet

    With etymological notes!

    “Keewee” is derived from Kiwi, an almost extinct flightless bird whose natural habitat is New Zealand. “Modock” is a legendary term for a bird that flies backward to keep dust out of its eyes.

    Elsewhere in the booklet, it says that a Keewee is simply a non-pilot (and so not necessarily connected to aviation).

    Neither Keewees (non-pilots) or women are permitted at QB meetings under any circumstances other than in the capacity of professional entertainers.

    (Thank you, toxic misogyny!)

    (Re: Kiwi: A quick check of Wikipedia shows 5 species of kiwi, and while they are listed as “Near Threatened” or “Vulnerable”, that is far from “Critically endangered”, the last stage before “Extinct in the wild”)

  17. Owlmirror says

    The link I posted was to the entire booklet. Page image for pages 14+15, with the explanation for Keewee and Modock.

    Despite what the booklet says (“no gurls allowed (unless they show their tits)”), the 1928 New Yorker article mentioned above claims that “Miss Elder holds an honorary membership card”. A bit of research shows that this was probably Ruth Elder, who would have been 25 in January 1928, and the author of the piece probably felt no need to give her full name because:

    In 1927 she took off from New York in the airplane American Girl, George Haldeman as her pilot, in an attempt to become the first woman transatlantic airplane rider. Mechanical problems caused them to ditch the plane 360 miles from land, but they established a new over-water endurance flight record of 2,623 miles. It was also at the time the longest flight ever made by a woman. She and George were honored with a ticker-tape parade upon their return.

  18. John Cowan says

    Those were the french dudes that wore those striped shirts and threw their women around on the dance floor, right?

    Apache dress vs. Apache dress.

    Gale reminds me that the pseudo-apache who was so vicious to her on that occasion pronounced the word as apaché with English-style final stress. Ignotum per ignotius.

  19. Owlmirror says

    I also suspect that the QB’s might have evicted Ms Elder (or she might have left after seeing what a sausage party they were becoming) after 1928, because in 1929, she helped found the Ninety-Nines.

  20. Owlmirror says

    I became curious about the 1931 citation from the OED. Is its source online now? Yes, it is:

    Sayer, Daniel C. Wingéd Words: Aviation Enriches the American Languge. MIT Technology Review. November 1931. pp. 65-67,102.

    The full paragraph:

    The pilot has few names for his kind, but many for his inferiors. For example, if a person attaches himself to aviation solely for social or publicity reasons, and there are many such, he is called a modock, a purely synthetic term filling a great want in the flyer’s vocabulary, and originally advanced by one Cy Caldwell, aeronautical humorist, who claimed it meant less than nothing in delicatessen Greek. A kewee is a ground-school pupil who has not yet flown, or a ground officer, attached to a flying field, who does not fly. The kewee is supposed to be an Australian bird with wings so minute it cannot fly. Instead, it runs around making a hideous noise. The ground-school student is also called a dodo. The word birdman is usually a term of derision, except possibly when used with the adjective quiet. The Quiet Birdmen is a non-modock, non-kewee organization of pilots, and a QB pin is good for more drinks in more towns than a prohibition agent’s badge. A pilote is to a pilot what a shoppe is to a shop, and describes the flyer who affects elegant boots and breeches and possibly a béret.

    Checking the OED, I do not find anything that suggests that “kewee” (or “keewee”) was ever a common alternate spelling for “kiwi”.

    Indeed, the OED actually shows that “kiwi” (with that spelling) as aviator slang for a non-flying person dates back to 1918 at least (that is, preceding the QB club). I note that the various examples given are not quite synonymous in meaning.

    (Also with capital initial.) A non-flying member of an air force (see also quot. 1938). slang.
    1918 B. Hall Diary 22 Jan. in B. Hall & J. J. Niles One Man’s War (1929) xxxii. 289 Visited the Avenue Montaigne Headquarters. It is full of non-flying aviators. The American pilots call them Kiwis.
    1925 E. Fraser & J. Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words 137 Kiwi, Air Force slang for a man on ground duty and not qualified for flying service.
    1931 Vanity Fair (N.Y.) Nov. 78/3 There are terms with which to plaster the green pilot and the non-flyer. Quirks or kiwis are beginners—sometimes the terms are broadened to include the layman. The origin of quirk is somewhat obscure..but kiwi is a derogatory reference to the Australian [sic] kiwi-bird, which, having only stub wings, is unable to fly.
    1938 Amer. Speech 13 156/2 Kiwi,..a person with no practical flying experience; often used as a term of disparagement toward one who speaks with authority concerning flying but whose knowledge is entirely theoretical.
    1943 J. L. Hunt & A. G. Pringle Service Slang 43 Kiwi, a word brought over by the New Zealand airmen with a new meaning: men who do not belong to air crews.
    1960 H. Wentworth & S. B. Flexner Dict. Amer. Slang 307/1 Kiwi, an air force man, esp. an officer who cannot, does not, or does not like to fly.

    I think that the work of Cy Caldwell might be online as well (in “Aero Digest” and/or “Aviator”), but it does not seem to be fully OCRed, so searching for that odd comment about “delicatessen Greek” might take a while.

  21. David Marjanović says

    Apache dress vs. Apache dress.

    The picture has succumbed to link rot.

  22. Fixed, per JC’s request.

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