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shameless pleading

Zoot suit

With a reet pleat.

Dear Word Detective:  I once heard an academic talk on zoot suits. Any talk where the speaker says “zoot suit” a dozen times is enjoyable. But later I tried to look up “zoot” in the dictionary and I could not find it. Where does “zoot” come from?  It also made me wonder if there are other words that are not treated as words because they only come in association with another. — Luke Roberts.

Wow. I would totally go to an academic talk on zoot suits. The zoot suit is one of those things that fascinated me as a child and has been lurking in my mind ever since. Apparently I’m not alone; I noticed last year when I finally got around to reading Gravity’s Rainbow that Thomas Pynchon mentions zoot suits repeatedly.

I actually wrote a column on “zoot suit” many years ago, but it never made it into my web archives, so I’m going to utilize parts of it here. A “zoot suit” was a type of men’s suit popular in the 1930s and 1940s, especially among African-Americans and Hispanics. A typical “zoot suit” boasted high-waisted trousers very wide at the knees but pegged tightly at the ankles, and an unusually long jacket with very wide lapels and heavily-padded shoulders. Standard zoot suit accessories included a keychain looping from the belt nearly to the knees, and a wide-brimmed hat, optimally sporting a long feather in the band. Obviously the “zoot” ensemble wouldn’t have passed muster as proper work attire even on today’s Casual Fridays, so it was reserved for nights on the town and special social occasions.

The origin of the “zoot” style is uncertain, but it seems to have evolved in the Harlem jazz scene of the 1930s, where such suits were known as “drapes.” The 1942 popular song “Zoot Suit” by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Bob O’Brien began “I want a zoot suit with a reet pleat / And a drape shape, and a stuff cuff / To look sharp enough to see my Sunday gal.”

By the 1940s, the “zoot suit” had become so popular in the Latino communities of the West Coast that the style became a point of friction between the Chicano and white communities in Los Angeles. The “Sleepy Lagoon murder trial” of 1942, in which twenty-two young Chicano men were wrongly accused of a gang murder, made national news and transformed the “zoot suit,” until then considered a cultural curiosity, into a symbol of menace and disorder to the larger society. The Sleepy Lagoon trial became, in 1979, the basis of the hit Broadway play “Zoot Suit” by Luis Valdez, who directed the film version in 1981 starring Daniel Valdez and Edward James Olmos. It’s a great film, by the way.

Given the colorful history of the “zoot suit,” the actual origin of the term is surprisingly prosaic. “Zoot” is simply what linguists call a “reduplication with modification” of the word “suit.” Such reduplications are common in many languages, often to add emphasis or substance to a word (e.g., razzle-dazzle, okie-dokie, flim-flam, hokey-pokey). So the “zoot” is just “suit,” no more significant than the “reet” before “pleat” in the song, but put them together and you have something much better than a dull old suit.

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