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Etymological Folklore
Or: A Few Subdued Thoughts on Hullabaloo

By Anatoly Liberman

Superstitions, unlike knowledge, spread quickly. Students’ atrocious spelling breaks every instructor’s heart, and we ask ourselves the question: How did so many people from all over the country, who never met and who would probably not agree on anything else, come to the unanimous conclusion that occurrence should be spelled occurance? It is, I believe, a huge left-right wing conspiracy. The same holds for etymology. For example, it is part of etymological folklore that posh (port outward and starboard home) and the F-word are acronyms. These rumors are boringly wrong as regards the verb of copulation and unsubstantiated with respect to posh. Every word columnist has been asked whether luck is related to Lucifer, why we are enjoined to mind our p’s and q’s, and where copasetic, Schadenfreude, and hubba-hubba came from. How did those insignificant words and phrases get into the center of insatiable popular curiosity? In my post on copasetic, I promised to address some such perennial questions, and today I will say what I know about the origin of hullabaloo, another universal favorite.

In 1898 James A. H. Murray published an appeal to the friends of what later came to be known as the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]. He asked for help in locating a quotation from Smollett, allegedly the first that contained hullabaloo in print. (The appeal ended with the following caustic remark: “It is one of the numerous words of which the use has been justified by saying that they are as dignified as the thing they stand for.”) The quotation going back to 1762 was discovered, and the corresponding entry in the OED opens with it.

The origin of hullabaloo aroused some interest long before Murray began work on the letter H, and the Hebrew word familiar from English halleluiah or hallelujah was suggested as its etymon (source). In response to Murray’s letter several correspondents cited hub-bub-boo, holoo-loo, hurley-bulloo (occurring in various texts), and Latin ululatus “howling.” Hub-boo-boo is almost indistinguishable from hubbub, which traces to a Celtic war cry. Hurley-bulloo looks like a blend of hurly-burly, and holoo-loo-loo makes one think of hallo ~ hello ~ hullo. Murray decided that hullabaloo is hullo- (an exclamation), with -loo echoing the first element and -ba- being a meaningless “infix.” Among the alternative spellings of the first element, hollo-, hallo-, hillie-, and so forth have been recorded, whereas -loo occasionally appears in the form -low.

Over the years, three more derivations of hullabaloo have circulated in the scholarly literature: from the French hunting cry bas le lout “at the wolf,” the Irish place name Ballahooly, and the Turkish word kalabalik (the same meaning as in hullabaloo; Arabic ghalaba “crowd” with the Turkish suffix -lik). The author of the Ballahooly hypothesis was Otto Jespersen, an outstanding linguist and an excellent language historian. But in his etymon the components are transposed and the whole comes out as a twin of ballyhoo. The Turkish idea occurred to Gösta Langfelt, who made his point most forcefully: “As far as I can make out, the etymology [of hullabaloo] has to be explained by a Swede, if it is ever going to be explained.” In Swedish, the Turkish origin of the word kalabalik has been established beyond doubt. Like Engl. hullabaloo, it appeared in the 18th century, and the circumstances in which it was borrowed are known. Thus a Swede has an unquestionable advantage over other researchers, few of whom can be expected to be specialists in Scandinavian slang. Langfelt, aided by an ally in his country, returned to his subject three times, put forward a few arguments why hullabaloo could not be derived from hurly-burly, and tried to explain how the Turkish word reached both Sweden and England (the least convincing part of his etymology).

The problem with hullabaloo is that words for “chaos, commotion, tumult” are often expressive. They sound nearly the same and have a similar structure in many languages. The syllable -loo is a ubiquitous sound imitative complex. Consider Engl. lull (and lullaby), Latin ululare “to howl,” German lu-lu (a baby word for passing water), and Russian lyuli-lyuli (a burden of folk songs), among many others. Even the entire group of the hullabaloo type has close analogs elsewhere (and -ba- is not a meaningless infix in them!). Dutch dialectal hollebolleg means “stormy” (said about the sea); Frisian holje en bolje “to rage” is a verb applied to the tossing of waves. In a Middle English poem, Belial, a devil who was frequently made the high officer of Satan by medieval writers, is called helles bulle “hell’s bull” or “hell’s dweller” (unless the form is a corruption of some word the scribe did not understand). One can suppose that hullabaloo is Belial’s linguistic offspring. As far as structure is concerned, we find Hebrew tohu-va-vohu “chaos” (with reference to wilderness; a word memorable from the beginning of Genesis) and Engl. razzmatazz. Almost any language has words like charivari (in English it is from French) and German Wirrwarr “confusion.” They can be borrowed, as happened to Swedish kalabalik, Engl. hubbub, and Engl. charivari, or native. Language creativity did not stop at the dawn of human history.

In English regional speech, the word pillilew ~ phillilew “quarrel,” along with its synonyms filliloo and lillilow (all spelled phonetically by informants), has been attested, the first l of lillilow arising, it appears, under the influence of the following l’s. They are definitely not from Turkish. I see no compelling reason for treating hullabaloo as a loanword. The simple, rather obvious etymology offered by Murray is the best we have. (If one can open a door by unlocking it, digging a tunnel, as Tom Sawyer liked to do it, should be avoided.) Hedging always disappoints those sending inquiries about word origins. But none of us was present when the first English speaker pronounced hullabaloo, so that even the most hard-working historians will not obtain eyewitness reports. Nor can we decide whether this word existed long before Smollett used it. Most probably, it did not. Does this mean that the origin of hullabaloo is unknown? Hardly so, but I admit that it is uncertain. In such cases, everything depends on how one defines “unknown.”

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    There is an Irish folk song, popular enough to be googled, called “Donall na Greine”, in which the word “fuililiu” occurs: in line 3 of stanza 7 on the back of the sleeve of an old gramaphone record I bought in Ireland in the mid 60′s – “Chuala se an fuililiu is duirt se nach bhfillfeadh se”. I think “fuil” means “blood”. Whether this has any bearing on “pillelew” I do not know.

  2. NJ

    There is a Hindi word called Halla bol which loosely translates to public commotion. Since the Scots were a significant part of the British East India Company starting 1707 (and the Smollett entry is circa 1762) is it not plausible that the word’s origin is actually Hindi? Do you know where I can find the Smollett quotation

    ~ Amateur Etymologicon

  3. iain greig

    Hulla builin, outcry, noise of hunt
    (from west cork history blog-Irish words in use in the thirties)
    An interesting similarity.

  4. Karel Rei

    Of no particular use since no candidate from an African language has been proposed, but one might note that the music that in the 18th century called “Turkish” music was usually the music of African drummers recruited for military bands. The OED is notoriously bad about such “foreign” things – at least in the eyes of those concerned with African cultures, not to say prejudiced.

  5. Seth

    This is the most convincing hypothesis I’ve read.

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