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Q From Paul Wagner: Your use of hoo-ha this week prompts me to ask your learned advice on its origins, and on those of the possibly related idiom, just a bunch of hooey.

A So far as my sources know, hoo-ha and hooey are not related, though the evidence suggests that people do at times confuse them. Hoo-ha is the easy one; this has been recorded since the early 1930s, then as now with the sense of a commotion, a rumpus or a row (though T S Eliot used it early on with the idea of a fit of anxiety, so making it very close in meaning to a case of the heebie-jeebies, a sense I’m told it has also had in Australian slang). It has various spellings, such as hoo-hah, with and without the hyphen. It seems very likely that it came from Yiddish hu-ha for an uproar or hullabaloo, which in turn probably derives from a Polish exclamation.

Hooey has the main sense of nonsense or rubbish. It’s a little older than hoo-ha, being recorded first about 1912. Its origin is less well attested and none of the many dictionaries I consulted ventured an opinion. However, Jonathan Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, suggests it might come from a Russian slang term for the penis.

There is also brouhaha, which looks as though it might be the original of hoo-ha, but it seems not to be, even though its first use in English goes back only a little further.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 30 Sep. 2000

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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: 30 September 2000.