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Author Topic: Is "heeby-jeebies" an anti-semitic phrase?
I'm 20th Century Fox
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A friend who thinks she knows it all told me yesterday that the phrase "heeby-jeebies" is anti-semitic (heeby being slang for Hebe / Hebrew). I told her I'd never heard that before, but of course, she insists she is absolutely 100% correct. I resolved to check snopes at the first opportunity, and unless I've misspelled it, I find no mention of this on the site - or elsewhere on the internet (a Google search didn't turn up anything).

Has anyone else ever heard this? This came up as we were watching the DVD of "Madagascar" and King Julius (I think) said something gave him the heeby-jeebies, and my friend stated that she was surprised they left that in there, since it was (her words) anti-semitic.

I'd like to prove her wrong, because she's a real know-it-all in some ways. But I don't want to be a know-it-all either, so help please!

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Squishy0405
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I've always used it to describe something creepy crawly...I would think Heebie-Jeebies? Not sure. We have these weird looking mini centipedes and that's what we call them...plus having a baby comes baby talk! I don't know the origin though...
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I'm 20th Century Fox
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Well, one site (just refined my search) gives this definition:

August 2005. heeby-jeebies - derives from an American Indian term for the 'dance of the witch doctor.'

From http://www.dynamicphonics.com/page18.html

Edit: I think I just found my answer:

http://www.word-detective.com/back-k2.html#heebee

"Dear Word Detective: At a recent party, I had occasion to use the phrase "Heebee Jeebees" to refer to something that gave me a "creepy" feeling. I was flummoxed when half the crowd was nonplussed! (See, you do have an effect!) Actually, I was even more surprised when someone suggested that she thought the phrase was not in good taste because it was anti-Semitic! I am doubtful, but I'm PC enough to worry. -- Chris Kuhn, via the Internet.

Of course I have an effect; many effects, in fact, some of them rather alarming. Most people find me easiest to take with meals (you can always play with your peas and pretend not to know me), and it's generally wise not to go swimming within a half-hour after reading this column. If dizziness or skepticism develops, go ask William Safire.

I, too, am surprised that half the folks at that party didn't know what "heebie-jeebies" (the usual spelling) are. What are they teaching in school these days, anyway? Nothing useful, apparently. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, the "heebie-jeebies" are "a feeling of discomfort, apprehension, or depression; the 'jitters'; delirium tremens; also, formerly, a type of dance." Just like the "wim-wams," I'd say, except the dancing part.

As to your worries about "heebie-jeebies" possibly being an anti-Semitic slur, the answer is a somewhat qualified "no." The phrase "heebie-jeebies" was invented by Billy De Beck, a famous American comic strip artist of the 1920's, in his popular "Barney Google" strip in 1923. De Beck, by the way, also invented "hotsy-totsy" (a term of approval) and the wonderful "horsefeathers" (meaning "utter nonsense") in his strip. "Heebie-jeebies" must have caught the popular imagination immediately, since the dance of that name appeared a scant three years later, in 1926.

The invention of "heebie-jeebies" by De Beck was, without doubt, innocent of any racial or ethnic animosity. The only possible anti-Semitic interpretation of "heebie-jeebies" comes from its unfortunate resemblance to the slang term "hebe" (a cropping of "Hebrew"), which is indeed an anti-Jewish epithet. Whether you want to risk possible misunderstandings when you use "heebie-jeebies" is up to you, of course, but the truth of its innocent origin is its best defense."

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Spam & Cookies-mmm
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The Word Detective says
quote:
The phrase "heebie-jeebies" was invented by Billy De Beck, a famous American comic strip artist of the 1920's, in his popular "Barney Google" strip in 1923. ... The invention of "heebie-jeebies" by De Beck was, without doubt, innocent of any racial or ethnic animosity.


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asnakeny
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Furthermore, the word "heeb" has lost much of its sting as an anti-Semitic perjorative: it has been (in academic linguistic parlance) "reclaimed" by the aggrieved parties and is now used as a hipster moniker among Jews (much as the word "queer" - a formerly anti-gay epitaph - is used as a positive identifier within the LGBTQ community.)

(Of course, this may be considered "out of date" within a few months, as "heeb" is now falling out of fashion within the hipster circles due to not its former offensiveness but to its overuse. I haven't seen a definitive replacement for "heeb", although "jube" ("j00b" on the net) seems to be making some headway.)

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Shadowduck
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[nitpick]

quote:
Originally posted by asnakeny:
*snip*...much as the word "queer" - a formerly anti-gay epitaph...*snip*

This is either clever wordplay that's gone over my head, or you meant epithet.

[/nitpick]

Michael Quinion agrees with Evan Morris on the origin, but doesn't mention any potentially racist aspects.

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Kathy B
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If I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!

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asnakeny
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Shadowduck is right- I meant epithet, not epitaph. Although epitaph could work in context, given the tendency towards gallows humor in the Poz community...

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EthanMitchell
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But....etymology isn't everything. If a word carries a particular connotation for some listeners, and speakers use it selectively for that reason, it is nonsense to dodge that intent by a historical claim. I'm not saying that happens much with H-J, but I've certainly seen it happen with "niggardly," and, weirdly, with "sodomite." I think the suggestion of the OP, that we can just consult a dictionary and, if it agrees with X, Y should stop being offended, is too simple a view of speech.
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Brad from Georgia
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathy B:
If I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!

Ah, Mrs. Malaprop! Won't you incline on the divan and tell me how you reached the pineapple of success?

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asnakeny
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quote:
Originally posted by EthanMitchell:
But....etymology isn't everything. If a word carries a particular connotation for some listeners, and speakers use it selectively for that reason, it is nonsense to dodge that intent by a historical claim. I'm not saying that happens much with H-J, but I've certainly seen it happen with "niggardly," and, weirdly, with "sodomite." I think the suggestion of the OP, that we can just consult a dictionary and, if it agrees with X, Y should stop being offended, is too simple a view of speech.

If someone is indeed (mis)using niggardly as a racial perjorative, then the problem isn't with the word, it is with the speaker. The suggestion in the OP is right: consulting a dictionary (or some other etymological reference) is the proper thing to do when a perfectly innocent word (used non-offensively) is misinterpreted as having offensive connotations.

Also, what is your point with "sodomite"? Can you please show us when sodomite was something other than a perjorative? (I can understand if the word is being used only in reference to ancient history, meaning "an inhabitant of Sodom." The problem is in using it to refer to a person in the present day: because the reference to Sodom is clearly meant as a negative comparison, the word conveys negative connotations towards the person it is directed at.)(And yes, I am also aware that there are attempts being made at reclamation towards "sodomite"; those attempts have not caught on as of yet as well as the attempts at reclaiming "dyke" and "queer.")

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EthanMitchell
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asnakeny-

"consulting a dictionary (or some other etymological reference) is the proper thing to do when a perfectly innocent word (used non-offensively) is misinterpreted as having offensive connotations"

I disagree. Dictionaries don't cover connotations. They can't. Connotation varies with the context, the tone, and the listener. And there are certainly cases where people use a word that's 'dictionary-safe,' like niggardly or Oriental, with the full knowledge that it will offend someone. I have seen people do this quite intentionally, in order to get a rise out of their audience, and then gleefully retreat into the dictionary defense. It's immature, and the defense ignores a key aspect of how languages work.

I've also seen someone try to the same with "sodomite," which is obviously offensive to almost everyone today. They insisted that 'no one could take offense' at being called a sodomite, since they were sodomites. I've also seen the reverse argument: an awareness publication by a gay group saying that you shouldn't call people 'faggot' because it means a bundle of sticks. Uh, no. If all it meant were a bundle of sticks, no one would care.

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Shadowduck
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Lewis Carroll had a point:

quote:
Humpty Dumpty: When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.
Alice: The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.
Humpty Dumpty: The question is: which is to be master - that's all.

I count etymology as an interest of mine, but it's important not to confuse the historical meaning of a word with the "real" meaning. Words change their meanings over time and the real meaning of a word is what it's generally understood to mean. It's unfortunate that a perfectly innocent word such as "niggardly" has been found guilty by association with less blameless words, but that's the way of it.

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NocturnalGoddess- naughty or nice?
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quote:
Originally posted by EthanMitchell:
asnakeny-

"consulting a dictionary (or some other etymological reference) is the proper thing to do when a perfectly innocent word (used non-offensively) is misinterpreted as having offensive connotations"

I disagree. Dictionaries don't cover connotations. They can't. Connotation varies with the context, the tone, and the listener. And there are certainly cases where people use a word that's 'dictionary-safe,' like niggardly or Oriental, with the full knowledge that it will offend someone. I have seen people do this quite intentionally, in order to get a rise out of their audience, and then gleefully retreat into the dictionary defense. It's immature, and the defense ignores a key aspect of how languages work.

I've also seen someone try to the same with "sodomite," which is obviously offensive to almost everyone today. They insisted that 'no one could take offense' at being called a sodomite, since they were sodomites. I've also seen the reverse argument: an awareness publication by a gay group saying that you shouldn't call people 'faggot' because it means a bundle of sticks. Uh, no. If all it meant were a bundle of sticks, no one would care.

The way I understand it, that's exactly why you shouldn't call someone a faggot, as it was used as a highly offensive insult towards homosexuals during the "burning times". Basically "Faggots belong in the fire" etc... hence it not just being a words that weirdly became an insult.

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Cold DecEmbra Brings The Sleet
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Nocturnal Goddess, a slight hijack... What are the "burning times" in relation to homosexuality? I've only ever heard the phrase used in a particular subset of feminist history to refer to the European witch hunts of the early modern period.

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abigsmurf
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I've always thought that heebie jeebies was a non-sensical word that got made up and then stuck. People understood it's meaning when it was originally used because of context and then began using it themselves because it sound nice or had been imprinted on them.

I've seen this used in countless PG comedies where they want to talk about breasts without upsetting the censors.

"did you see that lady? she had the biggest rumber bumbers I've ever seen!!!!"

There's probably a term for these rhyming couples which have no meaning...

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ottercreek
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I would say that if there was a time when it was offensive, that it has all but completely gone. I would have said, "completely gone" had I not read the post. Anyway, I doubt you would get condemned if you said it and there were Jewish people around. Probably most of them have never heard the story either. I could be wrong. I would just assure anyone who does hear it and knows the story, that the person who said it almost certainly, if not certainly, did not intend any bad meaning.
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