Dear Word Detective: You may (or may not) remember me from a bit less than a year ago, when I asked about “fedora.” Well, a word you used, “ballyhoo,” made me wonder who in their right mind (though they seem to be scarce) would think up something like that. Please help me, because this truly irks me! — Aife N.
Of course I remember you. You’re my niece, Sue’s girl, right? No? Well, if not, you’re in a definite minority. I seem to have an ungodly number of nieces and nephews, so I tend to assume I’m related to everyone. That’s a cool name you have, by the way, “Aife” being a major figure in Celtic mythology, and it’s the reason I actually do remember your question.
To briefly recap for the benefit of folks who weren’t paying attention earlier this year, a “fedora” is a broad-brimmed felt hat of the sort worn by Indiana Jones in the eponymous movies. Although today considered a man’s hat, the fedora takes its name from Fedora Romanoff, a hat-wearing Russian princess played by the legendary Sarah Bernhardt in the 1882 play “Fedora.”
People are trying to sleep.
In my column on “fedora,” I referred to the latest Indiana Jones epic as being “mega-ballyhooed,” meaning that its release was being “hyped” with an intense barrage of publicity. This is actually very close to the original meaning of “ballyhoo” when it first appeared in print in 1901 as carnival slang meaning “a showman’s speech touting a sideshow, etc.” The more general sense of “ballyhoo” meaning “noisy fuss, public uproar” (“Surprisingly, the Senator’s campaign survived the ballyhoo over his marriage to a cocker spaniel”) had come into use by the 1920s. The verb “to ballyhoo,” meaning to promote with extravagant praise, appeared around 1911.
The origin of “ballyhoo” in these senses is not known with certainly, but there is no lack of theories. Part of the problem is that there are actually several “ballyhoos” in English, and the relationships between them, if any, are very murky. In addition to the “ballyhoo” discussed above, “ballyhoo” is old nautical slang for an inferior ship (probably taken from the Spanish “balahou,” small schooner), a name for a species of fish (more properly the “balao”), and the name of the mythical “ballyhoo bird,” supposedly sporting four wings and two heads.
None of those other “ballyhoos,” with the possible exception of the bird, exhibit any hint of the “loud ruckus” or “public excitement” senses of “ballyhoo” as commonly used today. Fortunately, there is an explanation for the word that, while not proven, makes a lot of sense.
There is, in County Cork, Ireland, a town named “Ballyhooly” (“Baile Atha hUlla” in Irish), which was apparently, at some point in the past, famous for its street fights and rowdiness. In the 19th century, “ballyhooly” was used as a euphemism for “hell,” especially in the sense of harsh treatment, chaos or confusion (“What the ballyhooley do you call this?”, 1927). It seems entirely possible that a shortened form of “ballyhooley” came into more general use around the beginning of the 20th century with the “loud ruckus or fuss” meaning it has today.