Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Hootin'-Hollerin' Origins of "Hootenanny"

The latest episode of Slate's podcast Lexicon Valley is a hoot and a half, as I take a look at the origins of hootenanny, a word that emerged from rural America with many meanings before finding fame as a name for folk-music gatherings.

Hootenanny got national attention with the folk-music craze in the '60s, particularly with the ABC show of that name that ran from 1963 to 1964. Many folk acts boycotted the show because it refused to book Pete Seeger, who had been the subject of an anti-Communist blacklist. The exclusion of Seeger was particularly ironic, given that he, along with Woody Guthrie, had been chiefly responsible for introducing the word hootenanny into the American lexicon.

The very earliest uses of hootenanny was as an indefinite expression, along the lines of doohickey, thingumajig, or whatchamacallit. (Dozens of such words have peppered regional American English: in 1931, Louise Pound collected more than a hundred for the journal American Speech.) I found an example from 1906, in a historical novel by Richard T. Wiley, Sim Greene: A Narrative of the Whisky Insurrection, which purports to tell a narrative from the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790s in western Pennsylvania. Here's an exchange in which the title character Sim Greene uses hootenanny along with other colorful indefinite terms, conniplicon, majigger, and kerdoodlement:

"When I got thar," he said, "she wuz lookin' hotter'n her oven, an' wuz a-shakin' that conniplicon at the lummix, an'—"
"Shaking what?" interrupted Colonel Bayard.
"That hootenanny that she shovels her bread with — that long-handled majigger, you know."
"Oh, the oven-peel?" asked the Colonel, as if a light had just dawned on him.
"Yes, I guess that's what they call it. I've allus been ust to Dutch-oven bakin', an' don't know much abaout these new-fangled kerdoodlements."

But Wiley's use of hootenanny was likely an anachronism, as it doesn't appear in print until the early 20th century. Other early uses referred to automobile parts (a 1910 ad for a car promised you wouldn't have to worry about when "the Kabodeny drops out of the Hootenaddy"), and cars themselves — especially broken-down jalopies, which were dubbed "hoot nannies" as early as 1911.

Hootenanny's origins were examined in 1963 by the great folklorist and etymologist Peter Tamony (who also uncovered the baseball origins of the word jazz). Tamony noted that among the various meanings given to the word in rural America, it often meant "an impromptu party," especially in the Midwest. One Midwesterner, Terry Pettus of Terre Haute, Indiana, would be a key figure in the development of the term.

Pettus moved to Seattle, where he became a newspaper editor active in left-wing politics. In July 1940, the newspaper that he edited, the Washington New Dealer, sponsored a Democratic fundraiser that involved singing, dancing, and other entertainment. Seeking a name for the event, they chose hootenanny, which Pettus remembered from his childhood, over wingding. An ad in the newspaper read:

The New Dealer's Midsummer Hootenanny
You Might Even Be Surprised
Dancing ... Refreshments ... Door Prizes ... Uncertainty

The "uncertainty" of the hootenanny included surprise guest performers. When the second annual hootenanny was held in Seattle in 1941, they had two special guests, young buskers named Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger who were traveling through the Pacific Northwest. The event was a big success, and Guthrie and Seeger (then members of the Almanac Singers) brought the word back with them to New York City. They called their New York folkie gatherings hootenannies, and the term soon garnered national attention.

When Time Magazine wrote about the New York hootenannies in 1946, they asked Guthrie to explain where the word came from. His response was typically Guthriesque, ignoring Pettus and his Indiana childhood for a story of his own invention:

We was playin' for the Lumber Workers' Union. We was singin' around in the shingle mills. There was a lady out West out there in the lumber camp and her name was Annie and so every time they'd have a songfest Annie would outshout all of them. So people got to call her Hootin' Annie but the name got spread all over and so out there when they are going to have a shindig they call it Hootenanny.

Seeger kept hootenannies going and reveled in the word itself, despite getting blacklisted from the ABC show. As quoted in Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, Seeger had this to say about the word's cooptation:

Woody and I took the word ‘hootenanny’ back to New York with us [from Seattle] and used it for our rent parties. A few years later ABC television got hold of the term and put a registered trademark on it. I remembered too late that people had said to me, “Don’t you think you ought to copyright that word?” I said, “Well it’s an old word. Who’s got a right to it?” But I was wrong. In a world of private property, anything that is not nailed down can be taken and claimed.

Despite its commercialization, hootenanny remains a truly American word, richly evoking the nation's hootin'-hollerin' past.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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