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Post Boohoo, Yankee Doodle: A Further Treatise on "OO" (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 06/18/21 4:43 AM

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Boohoo, Yankee Doodle: A Further Treatise on "OO" (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 06/18/21 4:43 am)

Gary Moore writes:

The telltale American tic I've called "oo-squashing" (May 23, 26 and 27) has unlocked further doors.

This tic, squirreled away at the interface of etymology and ethnocentrism (as WAISers not yet rolling their eyes in distraction may recall) appears to be a cultural habit in US language history. The "oo-squashing tic" takes foreign loan words and half-accepts them, after a special kind of alteration, like a stamp in the word's English reincarnation passport. And this alteration imparts a faint, ambivalent whiff of ridicule.

The process seems to say: "Them furrin ways do look mighty temptin' sometimes, but I ain't a-gonna walk too fur into that there funny business. I'm a-gonna keep makin' fun of ‘em even if I sorta like ‘em." The stamp that conveys this--or at least seems to me to convey it--is the "oo" sound. In certain borrowed words it is inserted as a replacement for part of the original, giving the new hybrid a hint of sarcasm--though mixed disarmingly with a slight dash of humility and self-deprecation, as the razzle-dazzled cross-cultural traveler confesses disorientation, and concedes a frustrated inability to crisply pronounce the foreign jawbreaker.

I've mentioned the conversion of "vaquero" (Mexico's stoic, astute cowboys of old) into "buckaroo" (a word somehow ever-so-slightly doltish, just on its face). And the old Jim Crow "jooks" (fleshpots for African Americans) bequeathed a word derived untraceably from Africa to the somewhat sanitized, oo-squashed, post-Prohibition "juke joints" (fleshpots for whites). John E also contributed the slave-era squashing of the words "octorón" and "cuadrón" (Spanish racial typing), which were squashed into English as "octoroon" and "quadroon." It would be hard to prove that these "oo" sounds, wedged into American English usage, make the resulting words interestingly more distanced--like a bug held out squeamishly on a pin--but as it turns out, oo-squashing is older than US usage.

As the Middle Ages rolled into the Renaissance (some people put the divider at Columbus, in a day when he thought it quite normal to catch slaves), the kingdom of England, still not Great Britain, was not exactly a European upstart (it had conquered France and occupied Paris in the Hundred Years War), but in the first glimmers of the modern age England was dwarfed by consolidating power on the continent, where soon the Habsburg king of Spain spoke more Flemish than Spanish, controlled central Europe, and rolled his eyes at English barbarism. His nemesis the king of France also had grown mighty. As Elizabethan England squeaked by the Spanish armada in the storm of 1588, the feisty, underdog English, not yet ruling the waves or vast colonies, found themselves absorbing a flood of sophisticated foreign terminology. A period from roughly the 1400s into the 1700s produced a sub-category of defensive oo-squashings, a pattern so distinct that today it has its own Web page, elegantly titled simply "oon-."

As new words came into English from French, Italian, or Spanish, their pesky foreign pronunciations were chopped a bit. And they received their customs stamp, especially if their originals ended in "n." The "oo" + "n" squashing, a variant of what I'm talking about, formed a waystation en route to today's broader category. The two examples from John E's scholarship-"octoroon" and "quadroon"-turn out to be rooted in a brood of other semi-xenophobic launderings: doblón: doubloon; dragon: dragoon (their guns breathed fire); harpon: harpoon; lacuna, laguna, lagune: lagoon; lampons: lampoon; palone: balloon; carton, cartone: cartoon; coque, cocon: cocoon. And on and on. Less lasting were the scoundrely English borrowed words "poltroon" (from poltron, poltrone) and "picaroon" (from picaron, though the root has survived, oo-lessly, in "picaresque"),

But why "oo"? Why that particular sort of customs stamp to tame and mildly poke fun at alien intrusions? As Neil Simon said of vaudeville, the old cards knew that some sounds are just naturally funny. Simon didn't dig as deeply as the diphthongs, but focused more easily on a comic consonant, the sound of the letter "k." "Words with ‘k' in them are funny." Cue curtain: "Two ducks were sitting in a pond. One of the ducks said ‘Quack.' The other duck said, ‘I was going to say that.'"

Ka-boomp! Anyone can see that something in "oo"-with its low-slung, sluggish vocal positioning-can take a slightly derisive turn, less brightly than "k." Just a wrinkling of the nose is enough for "ooh," by itself, to become a missile of scorn, no other sounds required. The murky outlines of a deprecating genre begin to appear: ooze, booze, hootch, floozy, froo-froo, goop, goosey, fool, drool, palooka, kook, boodle, loot, cuckoo, looney, poop, droop--oops--and no few lewd crude nude words, referring to anatomy. Not to mention buffoon and baboon-more classic "+n" oo-squashings.

Obviously, "oo" is not always a spoiler (there's happy moon-June-spoon, after all), but the loose, oozy lair of this sound, in the palatal basement of vocalization, seems to invite a little woozy disinhibition. In 1947 when Alan J. Lerner wrote the book for a smash-hit Lerner and Lowe musical, he was certainly not searching for a title word that was negative, but he did want an air of foggiiy alien mystery. Thus he found the name, sort of pre-squashed, of a Bridge over the Scottish river Doon. Ka-boomp! ("She prophesied, that, late or soon, / Thou would be found deep drown'd in Doon"). Celtic heritage tends to pre-empt oo-squashing with its older music. Anglicization didn't have to squash very far on O Ruanaidh and Ó Maoldúin, to produce Rooney and Muldoon.

But to return to the march of history: The self-confident, though slightly insular English outlook soon was adventuring into a whole New World, and into its farthest western boondocks, where the rigors bid fair to a little rootin'-tootin', shootin', hootin' disinhibition. And waiting for that moment was a foreign word of bon vivant hauteur--but just a mite too high-falutin. Thus, the galoots could soon guffaw at the high-brow pretensions of the French salon, while enjoying it as the saloon. They shore 'nuff did hanker after a little of that racy French action--but not too much of it now, not enough to dangerously carry that mincing, foppish Frenchy taint. So it had to be distanced a bit, or squashed. Prudish linguists still marvel at a kindred word born right along with the saloon. They puzzle that it seems to have come out of nowhere, with no antecedents at all--except just "spit"--which element was quarantined by the saloonkeepers in those fancy, Frenchified brass urns. The age-old, tobacco-chaw spit-box had become the spittoon.

Other suspicious foreign "oo's" in that world-like "chop suey" and "coolie"-turn out not to have been squashings, but faithfully carried their "oo" sounds from older roots-in Cantonese, Hindi, and Urdu--though perhaps, in a crude new milieu, they survived because a hint of chuckly distancing was built-in. In the Korean War, GIs (if cluelessly rude) didn't have to invent their distancing epithet, for they could look at the name of the entire pensinsula: Han-Gook. It just sounded right. It said "ooh."

World World War II found scorn aimed at "hurry up and wait" logistics, thus inventing a masterful oo-cronym: "snafu." But post-millennially this has been surpassed, in platoon lampoons, by the genius act of replacing "snafu" with not one but two oo's, gruesomely fused (you know this one, involving that poor traduced pooch).

By definition, any culture's monster tales, for gloomy children or goosey adults, are going to be the soul of distancing. Nobody identifies with the boogeyman. But where did he come from? Cue now not the vaudeville snickers but the lurid, lugubrious "woooooo" of the ghouls. The Celtic "bogle" is the most probable ancestor, suitably squashed into "oo." But the bogle may have to share the honor. Some see "boogeyman" as an oo-squashed legacy of the Bogomil heresy from Bosnia, sweeping southern Europe before 1200. Some see nineteenth-century influence from seafaring tales of the feared Bugi, or Buginese pirates in Indonesia. Bedtime stories don't take many notes. But they know when the wind does that thing from the dark: oooooooo. The b-words spookily born of this show a tantalizing hierarchy. At the top of the palatal arch, most punchily pronounced, the "oo" rises to a short "u" in the lewd taboo of "bugger." But loosening a bit, it can fall toward mid-position--still not the lowest, flattest, fattest "oo," but rather the tauter variant, the short-oo sound of look-book-cook-which is seemingly most people's way of pronouncing "boogeyman." However, in some uncertain users, perhaps ambivalent amidst the tombs, pronunciation seems to fall farther, into the classic squash, squashing the b-taboo progression into its lowest, slowest, most alienating variant: "boo-geyman" (pronounced as in boohoo, not as in crook). Is such a slip a fumbling poker tell, an inadvertent confession of suppressed anxiety? Some might say, indeed, that major features of the entire Southern Drawl are such a tell, disowning an ambivalence toward tricky, snappy, snippy Yankee intrusion.

Whiles glowrin round wi' prudent cares,

Lest bogles catch him unawares.

But in American history, perhaps the oo-prize should go to a piece of fabulously complex nonsense that has puzzled every schoolchild forced to hear it. Such hearers rarely know about the world-scale Seven Years' War of 1756-1763, but they know its bi-product, the American Revolution. Britain had defended the colonies in the French and Indian War, this continent's name for the Seven Years' War's offshoot, and a push for recompense taxation was only one of the frictions. As redcoats and colonials fought as allies in the pre-revolutionary French and Indian War, British troops had a way of making fun of the sometimes ragged or less disciplined locals--a form of snide distancing-steeped in slang. These same troops were also not great fans of a storied fixture in Britain in those days, the young fop who would affect exaggerated fashions, coming home from a continental tour or two dripping with pretensions, such as eating foreign food--such as Italian macaroni. (Is the oo-word lurking here now looming more lucidly?) The eating fashions then came to extend to the labeling of exaggerated wigs worn in such circles, also called macaroni.

Thus we got the little song, tossed at backwoodsmen in the next tent and scarcely as a badge of patriotism, though somehow the coming fires of revolution would turn it around. Cultural borrowings were everywhere in a dawning nation, with ambivalent defenses squashed in. Naturally, when the French and Indian War redcoats were embracing a little ditty to razz the rednecks, there was resort to the great grab bag of derisive oo-sounds-where a natural candidate was "fool." But...nah. A little too blunt? A little too obvious and uncreative? Instead, the unsung songsmiths (or a British army surgeon, according to the credits) chose an oo-synonym for fool, one that was well known in the age of periwigs: the word "doodle." They didn't even put the resulting foolish doodle on a real horse, but on a runty little pony. Yet he thought of himself as quite the fine fop of a fellow, complete with continental culinary compunctions: the veritable Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Maybe it's merciful not to explain this to schoolchildren. The dance of distancing and defensiveness is just too durned complex. What peeks out of the chaos, in the end, is that goofy, spoofy "oo."

JE comments:   No better time to discuss the "oo-squash" than the month of Joon!  I should have waited until noon to publish this, however...

Gary, you've sent a masterpiece of a language essay, worthy of the late Bill Safire.  One postscript deserving further exploration:  the US vernacular distinction between boo/ooo, the scary ghost sound, and the slightly different, almost Frenchified interjection ewww, used to denote revulsion.  Might the recently cancelled, doubly insensitive Pepe Le Pew have an odorous hand in this?


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