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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.

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.”

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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