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shameless pleading

Hurly-burly

The roar of the crowd.

Dear Word Detective: So near the end of our vacation my wife was saying we were returning to the “hurry-burry.” I pointed out to her (a silly thing to do) that it was really “hurly-burly,” like in the opening scene of Macbeth: “When the hurly-burly’s done; when the battle’s lost and won” (those girls didn’t take sides, I guess). No doubt “hurly-burly” means noisy confusion, tumult, or commotion, but where does this come from? Early Scots battles? I know the Scots “hurl” a great deal (and in my college days I knew a number of people who “hurled” and caused a great commotion) so I’m assuming that perhaps they went to battle hurling spears, stones, cabers, and maybe even “burls”? Help me out here. My wife isn’t too happy that I corrected her, but maybe if I could explain the phrase she might calm down (and cease the hurly-burly in our home.) — Barney Johnson.

Thanks a lot. Now I have that old Donovan song “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” running through my head. Speaking of Scots hurling things, my parents used to take us to the annual Scottish Highland Games near where we lived in Connecticut, and it left me with a lifelong fear of flying hammers. And of bagpipes, of course, but, to paraphrase Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t not like bagpipes.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “hurly-burly” as “Commotion, tumult, strife, uproar, turmoil, confusion,” and dates its first appearance in print to the mid-15th century. Current usage seems to include a less dramatic sense of the word, meaning the rapid, demanding pace of modern life with its myriad “asap” tasks, appointments, meetings, etc.

Your hunch connecting “hurly-burly” to the verb “to hurl” is right on target. “Hurl” in its basic intransitive sense means “to move along forcefully; to rush impetuously,” and, as a transitive verb, “to push, drive or throw with force and violence.” The sense of rapid motion is central to “hurl,” and the Germanic root that produced it was most likely something like “hurr,” an imitation of something moving very quickly (which may also be the root of “hurry”).

The “hurly” in “hurly-burly” is almost certainly a form of the noun “hurling,” the primary meaning of which, logically enough, is “the act of throwing in a forceful or violent manner.” More relevantly, “hurling” back in the 14th century also meant “strife or commotion,” perhaps because in such a context there was likely to be literal hurling going on.

So by about 1600, “hurly” was in use meaning “strife or turmoil.” The “burly” was added through a common process called “reduplication,” in which a word is repeated with a slight variation (in this case the switch of the initial letter), as is found in such inventions as “hokey-pokey,” “boogie-woogie” and “super-duper.” In “hurly-burly” the second element (“burly”) is meaningless, as it is in most reduplications (although in some, e.g., “walkie-talkie,” it’s an essential part of the term).

Meanwhile, back at that Donovan song still bedeviling me, a “hurdy-gurdy” was originally an exceedingly weird musical instrument that resembled a lute or small guitar with a keyboard, played by turning a crank and pressing keys. In the mid-18th century, the term also began to be used for the small cranked barrel organs often used by street performers at that time. Apparently the dubious charm of both kinds of hurdy-gurdy is that they produce a constant droning sound behind whatever melody is being played, an effect said to be similar to that of bagpipes. Oh boy, bagpipes. Anyway, the term “hurdy-gurdy,” which dates to the late 18th century, is thought to have been coined in imitation of the instrument’s sound. But it may also have been influenced by the now-obsolete Scots dialect term “hirdy-girdy,” which meant (drum roll please) “uproar, confusion or disorder,” and which certainly seems like a relative of “hurly-burly.”

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