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Q From Roberta E Richardson: I’m a product of the 60s when we used the word groovy constantly. I thought that my generation invented the word. I was surprised to discover recently while watching the original movie trailer for Miracle on 34th Street, which was produced in 1948, that the word groovey was used in one of the big graphic headlines which scrolled over the video. I’m sure that you will have an amusing and edifying explanation of how old this expression is, and how it came to be?

A I’ll just give you the facts, ma’am ... it’s even older than 1948, I have to tell you. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1937. It comes from jazz, when to be groovey (the original spelling) was a shortened form of “in the groove”, meaning that somebody was playing brilliantly or easily, perhaps like a gramophone needle slipping along a groove, or making music as perfectly as a needle does in the grooves of a record. Tom Dalzell, in his Flappers 2 Rappers, quotes from the San Francisco Chronicle of 13 March 1938, in which Herb Caen is in turn quoting Bing Crosby: “In the groove means just right, down the middle, riding lightly and politely, terrific, easy on the ears”. Mr Dalzell suggests that “in the groove” was not replaced by groovey until about 1941, and that the latter only really caught on from about 1944–5 for a period of less than ten years. So the mid-sixties usage, in its slightly different spelling, was most definitely its second time around. Now, of course, it can only be used as a deliberate anachronism or by the terminally out-of-touch.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Jan. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 23 January 1999.