Luc Sante is always worth reading, and in the July 17 NYRB he has a particularly good review of Arthur Kempton’s Boogaloo. Now, the word “boogaloo” to me vaguely recalls a dance craze of the mid-’60s, but apparently it is used more generally to refer to African-American popular music (since it’s not in my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate or the AHD, I’m deprived of lexicographical backup). Sante says:

The boogaloo is, or was, one of the thousand dances the land was full of in the 1960s, enumerated in inventory songs such as James Brown’s “There Was a Time” and the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me”: the skate, the swim, the pony, the monkey, the camelwalk, the shing-a-ling. Arthur Kempton notes that it made its debut as the title of a million-selling but faintly remembered 1965 release by the Chicago duo Tom and Jerrio, a song that launched two major catch phrases of the era, “sock it to me” and “let it all hang out.” The boogaloo outlasted many of its competitor dances, or at least its name did, even making the transition into Spanglish as bugalú.

Somewhere along the line, perhaps around the time most people forgot its steps, the name metamorphosed into a sweeping term that could encompass almost all of African-American popular music, or at least everything that has arisen since World War II. The names of styles, which embody novelty, date more quickly than the substance they describe. “Soul” now sounds antique; “R&B” can be applied to the works of Wynonie Harris in the late 1940s, or to those of Mary J. Blige fifty years later, but not much in between. But because “boogaloo” is a term transmitted more often orally than in writing, it has enjoyed an immunity to the flux of fashion.

So my question is, are any of you familiar with the term in this wider sense, and if so, how would you delimit it? Does it really apply to anything since WWII? (I’m particularly hoping to hear from Avante Populi, a learned connoisseur of these matters.)

Excursus on punctuation. In the course of the review, I was brought up short by this: “His third subject, Berry Gordy Jr., was a good-enough songwriter early in his career to have staked a claim to artistry…” I don’t know whether Sante or a hamhanded copy editor is responsible for that hyphen, but it’s so very wrong that it exemplifies the importance of proper punctuation. It’s not just that it’s unnecessary; there are, as anyone who has had to make such decisions knows, many places where a hyphen can be included or omitted with equal justification (although you then have to make the same decision every time you run into a parallel case). No, this hyphen is actively evil, because it implies a construction that turns out to be illusory, so that you then have to go back and reevaluate what you’ve already read. Normally, “good enough” implies a following preposition or conjunction: “good enough to eat,” “good enough for government work,” “good enough that no revision was needed.” But on occasion it’s used by itself, with the implication “[just] good enough [to get by, to serve the purpose, to pass the time].” How was the play? Oh… good enough. (Nichevo sebe, they say in Russian.) And if you were to use this attributively, you might use a hyphen to tell the reader not to expect that preposition or conjunction: I saw a good-enough play at the Barrymore last night. So when I started reading the sentence, that’s how I interpreted it: Gordy was a good-enough songwriter [but that wasn’t his real strength]. Then I reached “to have staked a claim to artistry” and realized that the phrase was used positively, not in that deprecatory “just-good-enough” way, and not only did I have to go back and reread, I’ve had to take up my time and yours with this wordy divagation. Bad, bad hyphen! Into the hell box with you!


  1. I assumed that Kempton made up this usage of the word because there wasn’t really a word whose meaning contained all the types of music he wanted to imply by it, and because this word sounded good and isn’t used anymore.

  2. The word is now in the AHD:

    A style of soul music popular in the mid 1960s, sometimes including Caribbean musical elements.
    b. A style of dancing performed to this music.
    2. A form of urban dance originating in the late 1960s, involving undulating, fluid body movements and briefly held poses, performed to funk music.
    [Probably alteration of BOOGIE or BOOGIE-WOOGIE (perhaps influenced by HULLABALOO).]

    So it looks like Xhenxhefil is right that Kempton made up this usage. Tsk.

  3. I wouldn’t use nichevo sebe to mean borderline OK, I might use a bare nichego for that. Nichego sebe is reserved to expression of incredulity (you are kidding! I can’t believe it!).

  4. Thanks, I’ll correct my mental dictionary!

  5. January First-of-May says:

    To me, personally, the word boogaloo by itself does not mean anything – I only know it as part of the phrase electric boogaloo, where it doesn’t really sound like it means anything in particular (and offhand I wouldn’t be able to pin down the phrase‘s meaning either… something to do with similar sequels).
    [Apparently this originates from the 1984 film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, where that particular part of the title was actually relevant to the context.]

    In addition (somewhat diluting the “only know it as” claim above), the word is used at the end of the Ring inscription in Bored of the Rings, where it essentially serves the role of an inherently funny word, and clearly is not supposed to mean anything (or, at least, anything relevant to any meanings it might ever have actually had in English), since of course in-story the message is not even in English.

    Neither of those would have made me aware of “boogaloo” being anything but a funny-sounding word. I would probably have guessed, if asked, that it was an actual word and probably meant something, but until reading this thread just now I had no idea that the “something” was a style of dance.

  6. Same here – l encountered it as a word meant to be funny, and I guessed that it likely meant something like hullabaloo or so. So thanks for enlightening us!

  7. John Cowan says:

    The BotR verse is “A Elbereth Gilthoniel / Watusi snarf wazoo / Nixon Dirksen rataplan / Rebozo boogaloo”. Clearly we have a mixture of contemporary (1969) figures with (as January says) inherently funny words, but I’m not surprised that some of them come from music and dance: rataplan is an ideophone for high-speed regular drumming < Fr ran tan plan, and watusi and boogaloo are specific dances. Poetry is allied to literature, but its roots are one with music and dance. Wazoo means ‘anus’, but the best etymology anyone can come up with is that it is a variant of kazoo, a crude musical instrument.

  8. January First-of-May says:

    The BotR verse is “A Elbereth Gilthoniel / Watusi snarf wazoo / Nixon Dirksen rataplan / Rebozo boogaloo”.

    You might be mixing things up; the verse as given by Ardalambion is “Grundig blaupunkt luger frug // Watusi snarf wazoo // Nixon dirksen nasahist // Rebozo boogaloo”, and Google has 0 results for the sequence “Dirksen rataplan”.

    (Not sure what the divergence does to your conclusion. I do agree that rataplan is a neat word, though.)

  9. David Marjanović says:


    The Watussi, on the other hand, are the Ba-Tutsi.

  10. That takes me back. “Lucky Luke” was a staple of my childhood. The dog was called “Rataplan” in the German translations at first. At some point, the name was changed to “Rantanplan”, which irked me no end. Maybe it was done for consistency with the original. As far as I remember, that change coincided with a change of the publishing house for the German version.

  11. John Cowan says:

    It’s the sort of thing that might well change between editions, I suppose. WHat I wrote above is what my copy says.

  12. ktschwarz says:

    The congohelium resonated: boom—boom—doom—doom—room!

    The large ordinary drum rattled out, when Sun-boy passed it and reached out his fingers: ritiplin, ritiplin, rataplan, ritiplin!

    The small, strange drum emitted only two notes, and it almost croaked them: kid-nork, kid-nork, kid-nork!

    — “Under Old Earth”. I would never have guessed rataplan was a dictionary word.

  13. This German translation cuts the nonce, non-dictionary “ritiplin” entirely:

    Er begann um die Trommeln zu tanzen, und es klang: rataplan, rataplan! kid-nork-nork, kid-nork, kid-nork, kid-nork-nork!

    Googling for “kid-nork” turns up three types of hits. The vast majority are references (with varying levels of obliquity) to “Under Old Earth.” There are also a couple of hits that just seem to be random collocations of “kid” and “nork.” However, there are some other appearances of hyphenated “kid-nork” in the kind of text that spambots use to try to evade filters (e.g. “kid-nork ankylosing that that final tablet reaching amaroo, there. Wave stick hyperkinesia malygris. Prostatitis the woman machine lithotripsy kapitza jawbone…”). So there are artificial intelligences out there trying to use the garbled transmissions from the Douglas-Ouyang planets to mimic the work of human intelligence.

  14. That is either a very abridged translation or maybe a paragraph somewhat later in the text? It is about dancing around the drums and doesn’t mention the name Sun-boy.
    I can’t check because Google books doesn’t show the text, as I am accessing it from outside of the U.S.

  15. @Hans: You’re right, that’s a later section. Although Google said that was the only “kid-nork” in the text. I’m not sure why.

  16. Rodger C says:

    My edition of Bored of the Rings has January’s reading. Fascinating to know that this undergraduate burlesque was apparently thought worthy of updating.

  17. John Cowan says:

    I wonder if the Estate threatened to sue because of the three words copied verbatim in the first line, as this was long before Campbell v. Acuff-Rose (1994) established that parodies are presumptively fair use. If so, the publisher would have every incentive to keep the dangerous version from the light of day, but they couldn’t change already-printed copies.

    Note that frug is yet another dance.

    Google Books omits (for all users, not just those in a particular country) many pages of each book not only from display but from externally visible indexing, so its claims about how many instances of something occur in a book must be taken as a minimum rather than a correct value. However, by clicking on “view all pages” from a snippet view, you can often see a good number of otherwise-hidden snippets in plain text.

  18. January First-of-May says:

    Now I want to borrow rataplan (and for that matter rebozo “a long flat garment used mostly by women in Mexico”) for my next round of Fictionary.

  19. @January First-of-May: In Bored of the Rings, “Rebozo” is (I presume) primarily a reference to Richard Nixon’s best friend, Bebe Rebozo.

  20. per incuriam says:

    rataplan … a dictionary word

    >>It is hardly necessary to mention its introduction by Donizetti in the ‘Fille du Regiment,’ or by Meyerbeer in the ‘Huguenots’; and every Londoner is familiar with it in Sergeant Bouncer’s part in Sullivan’s ‘Cox and Box,’ especially in his first song, ‘Yes, yes, in those merry days.’ ‘Rataplan, der kleine Tambour’ is the title of a Singspiel by Pillwitz, which was produced at Bremen in 1831, and had a considerable run both in North and South Germany between that year and 1836<<

    – Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians

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