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Q From Carolyn Devine, Peterborough, UK: I am an English teacher and we had a poser today — where does the word hullaballoo come from? No-one in our staffroom could give the answer — can you solve the mystery?

A You can tell the origin of this word is puzzling because several explanations have been put forward for where it comes from. The sound is so evocative of the uproar, noisy confusion, commotion or fuss to which it refers that some dictionaries just say that it is echoic.

The standard explanation is that it was at first a rhyming cry halloo-baloo!, perhaps from the hunting field. However, the Oxford English Dictionary points to the old Scots term balow or baloo, which appeared in some early nursery rhymes and which has been used in Scots since the eighteenth century for a lullaby. How a noise intended to lull babies to sleep turned into part of a word for uproar and confusion is best left to the reader’s imagination.

A more inventive suggestion is that it derives from French. In itself that’s not much of a stretch because of the close links between Scotland and France at this period. However, the French origin suggested, bas le loup!, bring down the wolf, is just too much of a stretch to swallow. On the other hand, the word hurluberlu exists in French, meaning scatter-brained. This appears to have been first used by Rabelais in the sixteenth century.

There’s also hurly-burly, boisterous activity, known from about 1540 and which famously appears in the scene with the three witches at the start of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “When the Hurly-burly’s done, \ When the battle’s lost, and won”. This seems to be a contracted form of hurling and burling, where a hurling is an even older term for a commotion, disturbance or tumult. Burling never existed on its own, and is no more than a rhyming variation on the first word, as has happened also in namby-pamby, itsy-bitsy and others.

The French hurluberlu that I mentioned is roughly contemporary with hurly-burly. There is a suggestion that Rabelais’ usage might be linked both to it and to the Scots words that eventually produced hullabaloo, through related terms that shared the old idea of hurling.

By the way, the usual spelling now is hullabaloo, but it has been spelled in so many ways down the years that that has to be considered arbitrary. The first time it appeared, in Smollett’s Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves of 1762, it is spelled very differently: “I would there was a blister on this plaguy tongue of mine for making such a hollo-ballo”.

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Page created 19 May 2001