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Sukey jump

At the hop

Dear Word Detective: I’m troubled by the phrase “sukey (or sukie) jump.” (The “sukey” part is pronounced like the beginning of “soup”). I’ve come across it in scattered places referring to a party held by enslaved people in the South, away from the white folks. But it also appears in Leadbelly’s version of “Frankie and Albert,” where Frankie and Mrs. Johnson were in the graveyard after Albert’s funeral, “just pulling a sukey jump; they didn’t want to go home.” That reference seems to imply that there’s more shades of meaning to the phrase than I had thought. So can you give any insight into the phrase, where it comes from, etc? I can’t seem to find any authoritative reference to it anywhere. — John Roby.

That’s a darn good question. I must admit that until you asked I had never, as far as I recall, heard the expression “sukey jump.”


No relation.

You mention a song by Leadbelly in your question, and while he didn’t invent the term “sukey jump,” his fame seems to have assured the continued existence of (and interest in) “sukey jump.” Born Huddie William Ledbetter in Louisiana in 1888 to parents who had been born into slavery, Leadbelly was an enormously creative and influential folk blues musician in the first half of the 20th century. Leadbelly used “sukey jump” in songs and interviews in a number of senses: the kind of impromptu party among slaves you mention, a roadhouse or house party featuring live music, or a kind of quick, lively dance tune.

In “The Life and Legend of Leadbelly” by Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell (Da Capo Press, 1999), the man himself is quoted explaining the origins of the term: “Most of the parties and dances … were held in rural houses miles from the nearest town and often miles from the nearest white homestead. ‘They call them sukey jumps,’ Huddie recollected many years later. Sukey or sookie was apparently a Deep South slang term dating from the 1820’s and referring to a servant or slave. A sukey jump, therefore, was once a dance or party in slave quarters. Huddie himself once explained the term by saying, ‘Because they dance so fast, the music was so fast, and the people had to jump, so they called them sooky (sic) jumps.’ Sookie, Huddie thought, was derived from the field term for a cow, and was used to call a cow. Whatever the case, these late nineteenth century country dances gave Leadbelly the first public platform for his music.”

Leadbelly was absolutely right about the roots of “sukey.” The word “sook” has long been used in rural dialects in England and Scotland to mean livestock, specifically young animals (the word itself is a form of “suck,” as in nursing). In the US, “sook” is applied to mature cows as well, and “sook” or “sookie” is commonly used to call cows, pigs, etc. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine the term being applied in a demeaning sense to servants and slaves in the early 19th century US.


Look out below

Dear Word Detective: My friends at college comprise a fairly diverse group, U.S. region-wise, and so we’ve had the requisite “soda vs. pop” arguments, and commented on the strange speaking habits of those of our number from the West Coast (“Hella”? Really?). But probably the most bizarre thing we’ve come across is that the guy from West Virginia calls a knit hat worn in the wintertime a “toboggan.” The rest of us agree that a “toboggan” is a sled. So we were wondering if you could enlighten us: where in the world did this other use of the word come from? — Andrea.


Not amused.

Perhaps from certain people sliding downhill on their heads? Honestly, I don’t know why it’s so hard for some places to get simple terminology right. I definitely need to note this “toboggan” nonsense in my next book on regional linguistic confusion, provisionally titled “Don’t You Dare Call that Stuff Pizza” (a sequel to my best-selling “No, Virginia, That is Not a Bagel”).

Just kidding, of course. Regional variations in language are the soul of American English (and keep people like me in business). Incidentally, “hella” (probably a cropping of either “helluva” or “hellacious”) is slang meaning “extremely” (“Going hella fast”) or “lots of” (Hella cats you’ve got”), first appeared in the late 1980s, and is usually considered native to Northern California, although the earliest print citation for it in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a newspaper in Toronto. Go, as they say, figure.

I actually almost explained “toboggan” in the sense you mention a few years ago, but I ran out of room in that column. I was grappling with the fact that what I and many others had for years been calling a “watch cap” is now evidently known as a “beanie.” A “watch cap,” of course, is a close-fitting knitted cap, often made of wool, originally worn by sailors in the US Navy while “on watch” (posted on deck) in cold weather. A “beanie,” until recently, was a much lighter skullcap, sometimes sporting a small propeller on top, often worn by small children in the 1930s and 40s. Sometime in the 1990s, however, skateboarding fans decided that a “beanie” was any sort of knitted cap, even if made of thick wool, and the rest of the world obediently fell in line. Go figure again.

Compared to “hella” and “beanie,” the transformation of “toboggan” you mention actually makes a fair amount of sense. A “toboggan” is, of course, a simple type of sled, usually consisting of a flat slab of light wood with the forward edge turned up. Modern toboggans can often seat three or more riders, which is nice because then you’re not lonely when you hit that tree. The word “toboggan” is derived from “tobakun,” the Canadian Algonquian Indian word for such sleds, and first appeared in English in the early 19th century. “Toboggan” meaning a knit cap comes from “toboggan cap,” a long woolen hat (essentially an elongated watch cap) considered appropriate headgear while tobogganing in the early 20th century. The use of “toboggan” by itself to mean a woolen cap dates to around 1929, and seems fairly widespread in the US today, often in contexts far from the sledding slopes (“He [a burglar] was wearing a red toboggan and tight pants, police said,” Raleigh (NC) News & Observer, 1975).

Hickey bar

That thing you use.

Dear Word Detective: There are many wonderful and mysterious names for tools in every trade, and ironworking is no exception. A long-handled device used for bending rebar is known as a “Hickey bar” (or “Hicky,” or “Hickie,” depending on who’s doing the writing). Try as I might to get to the bottom of the name’s origin I have been stymied. Can you gain any traction on it? And, if you’re in the mood for a two-fer, hold forth on the origin of “spud” (as in an ironworker’s spud wrench). — Richard Meltzer, Haverhill, Mass.


Not a clue.

That’s a wonderful and mysterious question. I haven’t even started to attempt an answer, and I’ve already learned something. I’ve been wondering for years exactly where the term “rebar” (the steel bars embedded in concrete to strengthen a structure) came from. Unfortunately, I had never wondered about “rebar” while I was anywhere near my desk, and inevitably forgot to look it up when I was. But it turns out to be a blend, a “portmanteau” word, formed from “reinforcing” and “bar.” “Portmanteau” is, by the way, a very old word for “suitcase,” and the term “portmanteau word” was coined by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1871 (“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ … You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word”). “Motel,” a blend of “motor” and “hotel,” is another portmanteau word.

As for “hickey,” we have good news and we have bad news. The good (or at least interesting) news is that the first occurrence in print for “hickey” in any sense is from 1909, when it was specifically defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a device for bending a conduit, consisting of an iron pipe used as a handle fitted at one end with a tee through which the conduit is passed,” which sounds a lot like your “hickey bar.” The term “hickey” has subsequently been applied to a variety of tools, gizmos, doodads and even flaws in various materials, as well as being the well-known teenage term for the mark left by a “love bite.”

Unfortunately, the bad news is that there doesn’t seem to be any particularly neat story associated with the origin of “hickey.” The word is almost certainly what linguists call a “fanciful coinage,” a word made up for something that lacks a proper name when people get tired of calling the thing “that thing.”

“Gizmo,” “dingus” and “doodad” are similar inventions. In fact, if you blend “doodad” with “hickey,” you get “doohickey,” yet another name for a “whatsis,” in this case dating to 1914.

Although we usually encounter “spud” as another word for “potato,” it originally, in the 15th century, meant a kind of short knife or, later on, a gardening implement (used, among other things, to dig up potatoes, which themselves eventually became known as “spuds”). My understanding is that a “spud wrench,” at least in the construction field, is a wrench with a narrow, elongated handle which is used to line up holes in beams, etc., through which bolts are to be put (and presumably then tightened with the head of the wrench). The origins of the word “spud” itself are uncertain, but it may be derived from a Scandinavian root meaning “spear.” If true, that would, given the long, narrow handle of a “spud wrench,” explain how the tool got its name.