In the latest installment of Slate's podcast Lexicon Valley, I look at the origins of an expression that turns nervousness and apprehension into a jokey malady: the heebie-jeebies. It turns out we can pin down not just the coiner but the very day that he coined the word.
This bit of "rhyming reduplication" goes back to Billy DeBeck's comic strip Barney Google, which became hugely popular in 1922 when DeBeck introduced a sad-sack race horse named Spark Plug owned by Barney. Many of the strip's storylines involved Barney's mostly futile attempts to get Spark Plug to win races. On October 26, 1923, in just such a storyline, Barney gets frustrated with Spark Plug and yells, "You dumb ox — Why don't you get that stupid look offa your pan — you gimme the heeby jeebys!"
After DeBeck introduced the word, he kept at it, eventually settling on the now-familiar spelling heebie-jeebies. When Barney bought worthless stock in the Belgian Hair Tonic Company, he got "the heebie-jeebies" again.
But it was Spark Plug who most often fell victim to the heebie-jeebies in subsequent strips, typically leaving him incapacitated right before a race, much to Barney's chagrin. And then, thanks to the power of William Randolph Hearst and his International News Service, articles appeared in sports pages about a $100,000 cross-continental race from New York to California involving Spark Plug and other fictitious horses. Barney Google is quoted talking about his attempts at staving off Spark Plug's "horsey heebee-jeebies."
Pretty soon, the word spread beyond the comic strip and other Barney Google references. A 1924 column in Illinois' Decatur Daily Review treats it as a common bit of slang (comparing it to another slangy expression I've discussed on Lexicon Valley, get one's goat.)
From there, heebie-jeebies continued to circulate, working its way into popular culture in various ways, including as the name of a Chicago magazine, as well as several songs and dances. The most famous song was recorded in 1926 by a young bandleader in Chicago named Louis Armstrong. Armstrong, who wrote the lyrics to an instrumental by his friend Boyd Atkins, famously dropped his lyric sheet during the recording session with his band The Hot Five — at least that's how the story goes. He continued on by scat-singing nonsense syllables, a landmark moment in jazz history. (In his fascinating 2014 book Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism, Thomas Brothers delves into the recording of the song and its lasting influence.)
The song was such a hit that Armstrong's record label OKeh circulated instructions for the dance to accompany the song, featuring the lovely Tinah Tweedie posing for the different steps (the "get-off," the "stomp-off," the "fling-off," the "heebie-off," the "jeebie-off," and the "blow-off.") Slate staffers went that extra mile and created a video demonstrating the dance.
Want to try the dance yourself? The surprisingly complicated instructions follow below.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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