Hubba-hubba is dated slang, a word remembered even less then groovy and bobby-soxer. To my surprise, even my computer does not know it. And yet it was all over the place sixty and fifty years ago. Its origin attracted a good deal of attention soon after World War II and then again in the eighties.
The questions facing an etymologist are always the same. When and where did the word arise? How did a given combination of sounds acquire the meaning attached to it? In dealing with very ancient words, we can seldom find out in what part of the world they were coined. Hence the references to Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Germanic, and the like, as though there ever were places on the map called Proto-Indo-Europe or Proto-Germania. Once we leave onomatopoeic formations (plop, whew, cuckoo, etc.), the impulse behind name giving usually remains hidden. We still do not know how one, two, three, and the other basic numerals came about. Was one (pronounced approximately oinos) a synonym of thumb? Are five and fist related? The same holds for the main terms of family relations. For example, the origin of daughter and bride remains controversial. But hubba-hubba is not proto-anything. It seems to have appeared rather early in the 20th century, and many eyewitnesses have testified to its use; it made its way into print as an exclamation and as an attribute (a hubba-hubba thing). However, those who associated hubba-hubba with a certain military camp or baseball team often made a mistake common in etymological studies and believed that that was the place of the word’s birth. Hubba-hubba enjoyed its two or three decades of fame as a “wolf whistle,” a sexual salute by a male on seeing an attractive female, an appeal to his companions to pay attention and not to miss desirable prey. I realize that my definition is not the acme of political correctness, but this is what hubba-hubba “signified.” Women have occasionally been overheard using the exclamation too, but rarely, and more in jest.
The question why hubba-hubba came to mean what it did is not too hard. From Africa to the Far East people accompany the act of catching a ball with the cries kap, kop, hap, hop, gap, gop, and so forth. Just why they give vent to their excitement and triumph by such means is a question for psychologists rather than for students of language. The English word closest to hubba-hubba is hubbub. It goes back to an Irish battle cry. Hip-hip (hooray) is also close enough, as are hip and hep in various languages. In addressing horses, hup often becomes hep and hip. One can see that hippies and all things hip have a respectable linguistic ancestry. Even the adverb up may have had a comparable past. One of its related forms was iup, another had the vowel of oo and sounded almost like Engl. oops. Perhaps at the dawn of civilization people shouted oop ~ iup on seizing an enemy, grabbing an object, jumping over a hole, or falling down (some old words for “down” resemble up!). The briefest glance at hullabaloo (to which I at one time devoted a special post), hoopla, and ballyhoo shows how much they resemble one another. Speakers get hyper in a similar way wherever animal instincts get the better of the gentility beaten into them. Later such sound complexes tend to lose their emotional character and acquire abstract meanings or degrade into the simpering baby talk of the oopsy-daisy ~ upsy-daisy type. The repetition of hubba is not a riddle either. Reduplication means reinforcement: the sparrow “says” peep-peep, a child is soothed by tut-tut, and Germans, when knocking on wood, say toi-toi. Let us also not forget beriberi and the modern plague of saying very, very. Hubba-hubba takes more time and is thus weightier than hubba. It is a natural “sound gesture,” and our main question consists of finding its earliest environment.
Hubbub, as already mentioned, has come to English from Irish, so that hubba-hubba may be a loanword. Yet attempts to trace it to some foreign source (Chinese, Spanish, and Yiddish) carry no conviction and have been abandoned. In all probability, hubba-hubba is English. Its early 20th-century American predecessor or variant was hab(b)a-ha(b)ba. To quote Peter Tamony, a first-rate researcher of slang: “In baseball the form was habba-habba, an erosion of Have a life, one of the traditional holler or pepper cries of the game. When this cry of encouragement and team spirit encountered the drill sergeant’s command Hup, two, three, four, in regular or double time, the association basically produced the often-discussed hubba-hubba.” We need not take Tamony’s word for the ultimate etymological truth; he was a great fact finder but not a reliable historical linguist. Yet most contributors to the discussion agree that hubba-hubba emerged either as a cry of encouragement in baseball or as a military command, or as a part of entertainment folks’ slang. The change in the language of “holler guys” from have a life to hava-hava and habba-habba ~ hubba-hubba would be hard to document. The U.S. Army Air Forces, Navy, and the Marines have claimed the origin of hubba-hubba. Although this claim should be taken with a grain of salt, it is true that the war made the cry popular.
Knowledge of the exact place (baseball?) where hubba-hubba was coined evades us, but dictionaries are not quite right in putting a desperate question mark when it comes to the etymology of this word. Hubba-hubba is a natural cry, reminiscent of many similar ones. Some of them begin with an h; others with a vowel. The home of this particular cry is American English, and its source was not a foreign language. It became known around 1920, spread like wildfire in the forties, and died peacefully some time later. Of course, it would be better if we could say: “The originator of hubba-hubba was Mr. John Smith of Tampa, Florida (born in 1907), the father of the famous pilot John Smith Jr. He did not know a word of any foreign language. Moreover, he had a speech defect and instead of have a life used to say either hava-hava or hubba-hubba. Despite the impediment, or perhaps because of it, he was a wild baseball fan, and those around him began to imitate his pronunciation. John is still alive and walks three miles a day. He is a caring, sharing individual. Thanks to the advances of medicine, he has been cured of his defect. In his unpublished memoirs, he expresses regret for giving so much trouble to students of linguistics, who filled journals with the wildest speculation on the origin of hubba-hubba. He is glad that no one remembers the word any more (he spells it anymore).” Doesn’t the public expect too much from etymologists?
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 email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”