Discuss word origins and meanings.
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Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Dec 23, 2005 7:20 pm

HOO-HA! is such a great Yiddish expression that I feel I must expand on its brief mention in the posting hooyah (the war cry). It should be noted, though, that HOO-HA! is also used by some as an alternate ‘war cry’ spelling.

When I was a kid visiting my grandparents on the lower East Side of Manhattan, these old Jewish kibitzers used to relish pinching my chubby cheeks and there I’d be hanging by my face – and damn, that really hurt. These same characters would also always love to say 'HOO-HA!' in response to something that someone said. And the expression was not confined to the Jewish community, just as the ethnic expressions of various groups (e.g. Italian, German, Irish, . . .) were freely adopted by others. Yiddish comedians also loved this expression and many included in their acts.

There were many different types of HOO-HAs each associated with a different nuance of body language, intonation, facial expression, and situation. When I looked this one up in Rosten’s Joy of Yiddish (2001), I was pleased to find that he had captured many of the subtly different ways in which this exclamation can be used, which I would have had trouble recalling:


Pronounced WHO HAH! to rhyme with ‘poo bah.’

An immensely impressive Yiddishism for the expression of

1) admiration. “His new house? Hoo-ha!”

2) astonishment. “She ran away? Hoo-ha!”

3) envy. “Did he marry a pretty girl? Hoo-ha!”

4) skepticism. “I can’t lose? Hoo-ha!”

5) deflation. “He calls himself a singer? Hoo-ha!”

6) scorn. “Some friend. Hoo-ha!”

Also used, depending on vocal emphasis and accompanying facial expression, to convey the essence of

1) “Imagine that!” (“Left his wife? Hoo-ha!”)

2) “You don’t mean it?” (“Her, Hoo-ha!”)

3) “Well, whaddaya know! or “I’ll be damned.” (“Right in the middle of the lecture, hoo-ha!, he stood up and left!”)

4) “Wow!” (“What a party! Hoo-ha!”)

5) “Who do you think you’re fooling?” (“Sure, I believe every word, hoo-ha!”)

6) “That’ll be the day! (“He wants to be president, hoo-ha!”)

7) “Like hell!” (I’ll get him a present, hoo-ha!

Note: The early MAD magazine added “Help!” to the list of meanings for hoo-ha! by using it as the distress call of “Melvin of the Apes,” a parody of Tarzan. [[circa 1952]]

[[Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang tells us that this expression was in use BY the 1930s]]

So, it would seem that the Yiddish HOO-HA! would just about cover any situation that Al Pacino’s Lt. Col. Frank Slade used it for in ‘Scent of a Woman’ as discussed in the above-mentioned HOOYAH (battle cry) posting. Which expression was actually meant, perhaps, only the movie script-writer knows for sure!

There is another HOO-HA, a noun, which I should mention, that may or may not be independent of the Yiddish exclamation and/or the military battle cry. This HOO-HA is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang as a colloquialism first appearing in print in 1931:

HOO-HA noun: 1) A commotion, disturbance, rumpus, row, uproar, brouhaha. <“There was a big hoo-ha at the meeting last night”>. 2) A noisy celebration, a raucous fete. <“After their first victory in a year the team held an all-night hoo-ha at the club.”> [perhaps influenced by the Yiddish HOO-HA; first attested to in early 1900s British armed forces as “an argument; an artillery demonstration,” and probably echoic-symbolic of a loud fuss, like hoopla, to-do, brouhaha, foofaraw, and hooley.

This mention of a British military usage does open the door to a possible ultimate link to the U.S. military battle cry. And, interestingly, Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Slang feels that there is a connection between the above British military ‘fuss’ definition and Yiddish expression when he says:
<“Make a (big) HOO, hah! or fuss over something. . . Robert Claiborne wrote in 1976: ‘“HOO, HAH!” is a not uncommon Yiddish exclamation, meaning appropriately “What’s all this?” Hence also the noun meaning fuss’—which is decidedly relevant to the origin of the term.”>
So, now we DO have a possible link between the Yiddish expression and the battle cry. But is this link real? – only the Shadow knows for sure!
<1931 “The devil of a HOO-HA in the papers about increasing the demand for English-grown corn.”—‘Punch,’ 14 October, page 402/1>

<1937 “He came up under cover of all the HOO-HAH on the stage some time after the event.”—‘Vintage Murder’ by N. Marsh, vi. page 63>

<1944 “There's a bit of a HOO-HA on about your tea-party.”—‘Pastoral’ by N. Shute, ix. page 206>

<1955 “He could cut off home after the HOO-HA died down and claim his inheritance.”—‘Ask a Policeman’ by E. C. R. Lorac, xvii. page 187>

<1959 “I don't think Mummy will make much of a HOO-HA if she knows it's not for long.”—‘For Richer, for Poorer’ by B. Goolden, xiii. page 352>

<1968 “And there was a terrific HOO-HA over this because they all thought I should go and be a termination case or something.”—‘Listener,’ 27 June, page 837/1>

<1971 Country Life 27 May 1328/2 “Some of these lovely irises may..be grown . . . successfully without much HOO-HA.”—‘Country Life,’ 27 May, page 1328/2>
Ken G – December 23, 2005

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