Saturday, August 02, 2008

Word of the Day: Hooch

I was watching the first episode of Jeeves & Wooster, the superb British television adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's series of comic novels starring Hugh Laurie (Bertie Wooster) and Stephen Fry (his valet Jeeves) last night when I heard a bit of etymology. Wooster is singing at the piano... in fact, I've found the very scene on YouTube:

Wooster encourages Jeeves to join in the call-and-response part of the song he's trying to learn, Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher." The 1931 song features Calloway's trademark "Hi De Hi De Hi De Ho" scat, which is of course the part that Bertie Wooster wants his buttoned-up valet Jeeves to repeat. The inimitable Jeeves complies, adding "sir" to the end of it every time until instructed not to.

But the interesting part for me was Jeeves' reciting the origin of the word Hooch. The poor fop Bertie Wooster, learning the song from sheet music in his deluxe London flat, is having trouble understanding the words:
"What do you suppose a 'hootchie cootcher' is exactly?" asks Wooster.

"It's difficult to say, sir," Jeeves replies. "Unless it's in connection with one of the demotic American words for ardent spirits. I'm thinking of 'hooch,' a word of Eskimo origin, I'm informed."
Jeeves is more or less right, according to Merriam-Webster, which says the word dates back to 1897: "short for hoochinoo, a distilled liquor made by the Hoochinoo (Hutsnuwu) Indians, a Tlingit tribe."

From what I can gather, the Tlinglit are not Eskimo or Inuit, but an Alaskan group that live around the coasts (not on the tundra). Hooch is one of dozens of English words that came from American Indian sources, more still if you count place names.

Here is one version of the song's lyrics:
Folks, now here's the story 'bout Minnie the Moocher,
She was a red-hot hootchie-cootcher,
She was the roughest, toughest frail,
But Minnie had a heart as big as a whale.

[Call and response scat chorus differs every time. The following is simplified:]

Now, she messed around with a bloke named Smoky,
She loved him though he was cokie,
He took her down to Chinatown,
He showed her how to kick the gong around.

Now, she had a dream about the king of Sweden,
He gave her things that she was needin',
He gave her a home built of gold and steel,
A diamond car with a platinum wheel.

Now, he gave her his townhouse and his racing horses,
Each meal she ate was a dozen courses;
She had a million dollars worth of nickels and dimes,
And she sat around and counted them all a billion times.

Poor Min, poor Min, poor Min.
Note that Bertie skips over some of the more sordid bits. The "cokie" is apparently a reference to cocaine and the "nickels and dimes" phrase may be a reference to small bags of marijuana. Racy song.

But was hooch the real origin of hoochie coochie? According to Steve Bekes, writing on the etymology site, the hoochie coochie was a "muscle dance" performed by women -- in other words, some sort of burlesque. There was much hoochie coochie-ing at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the first big public performance of the type of dance.

Bekes is vague on the source of the dance, and he doesn't make any mention of Cab Calloway. He's more concerned with the Willie Dixon song "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man," which was recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954.

Here are the lyrics to that song:
The gypsy woman told my mother
Before I was born
I got a boy child's comin'
He's gonna be a son of a gun
He gonna make pretty womens
Jump and shout
Then the world wanna know
What this all about
But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Well you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him

I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo too
I got the Johnny conkeroo
I'm gonna mess with you
I'm gonna make you girls
Lead me by my hand
Then the world will know
The hoochie coochie man
But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Oh you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him

On the seventh hours
On the seventh day
On the seventh month
The seven doctors say
He was born for good luck
And that you'll see
I got seven hundred dollars
Don't you mess with me
But you know I'm him
Everybody knows I'm him
Well you know I'm the hoochie coochie man
Everybody knows I'm him
The site Harry's Blues Lyrics Online cites the word hooch as Jeeves did, and adds the suspicion that coochie is some sort of slang for female genitals. Sounds plausible, but at what point did the word come to mean that? Is it as a result of the name of the dance?

Someone else points out that the 1904 song "Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis" (which can be heard here as an Edison wax cylinder recording) contains the term. Here are the lyrics to the chorus:
Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair
Don't tell me the lights are shining
Anyplace but there
We will dance the "Hoochie-Koochie"
I will be your "Tootsie-Wootsie"
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair.
The song was written by Kerry Mills (music) and Andrew B. Sterling (lyrics). It refers to the St. Louis World's Fair and was later part of a Judy Garland musical.

As an aside, the word hoochie got into the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 1991, meaning "a sexually promiscuous young woman."

If anyone has any other clues, let me know.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

"erotic suggestive women's dance" (involving a lot of hip-grinding), 1898, of obscure origin, usually associated, without evidence, with the Chicago world's fair of 1893 and belly-dancer Little Egypt (who may not even have been there), but the word itself is attested from 1890, as the stage name of minstrel singer "Hoochy-Coochy Rice," though its meaning there is unclear, perhaps a nonsense word.

7:37 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Site Meter