The Grammarphobia Blog

The sexy life of “hubba-hubba”

Q: In the October 2011 issue of Playboy (of course I read it only for the articles), Margaret Atwood says “hubba-hubba” may have come from hübsche, meaning beautiful in German. Can you confirm this? If not, can you give a definitive origin for the term?

A: We didn’t read the Playboy article, but Atwood makes a similar comment in her 2011 collection of essays about science fiction, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

In commenting about Al Capp’s “harem of eccentric glamour gals” like Stupefyin’ Jones, Appassionata Von Climax, and Moonbeam McSwine, Atwood writes:

Hubba hubba, men said in those days: a term obscure in origin but most likely a variant of hübsche, the German word for ‘beautiful.’ ”

Well, we agree with her that the term is obscure, but we haven’t seen any evidence that it’s related to hübsche or, for that matter, any other foreign word (Chinese, Spanish, and Yiddish roots have also been suggested).

We can’t give you the definitive origin of “hubba-hubba,” but we can give you a summary of the scholarship available. (You’d be surprised at how much time etymologists have spent on this!)

Let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary, which describes the term as a US slang interjection of unknown origin, and offers this definition: “Used to express approval, excitement, or enthusiasm. Also as n., nonsense; ballyhoo.”

The OED’s earliest published reference is from the journal American Speech, which cites this 1944 example of a “hubba-hubba” variant: “The inevitable fact is that the cry ‘Haba-Haba’ is spreading like a scourge through the land.”

A year later, American Speech described the term this way: “Hubba-hubba, originally gibberish, now means the spirit of double-time and eagerness; it is a verb, adjective or noun, an imprecation, warning or insult.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang cites reports that the term began life as either a college cheer or World War II GI slang used in the glamour-gal sense.

The dictionary says Bob Hope picked up the expression from the GIs, used it in his act, and that was “the seal of approval.”

The folk etymologist Peter Tamony has said “hubba-hubba” originated in the early 20th century as a blending of the baseball expression “habba-habba,” a corruption of “have a life,” and the drill sergeant’s command “hup, two, three, four.”

Although college students, ogling GIs, drill sergeants, entertainers, and baseball players may have played a role here, we can’t say for sure that “hubba-hubba” originated with any of them.

The language researcher Anatoly Liberman has written an extensive post on the Oxford University Press blog about the origin of what he describes as “a sexual salute by a male on seeing an attractive female.”

Liberman, who teachers courses in linguistics, etymology, and folklore at the University of Minnesota, suggests that “hubba-hubba” is simply another example of the rhyming slang that pops up in different languages around the world.

“The question why hubba-hubba came to mean what it did is not too hard,” he says. “From Africa to the Far East people accompany the act of catching a ball with the cries kap, kop, hap, hop, gap, gop, and so forth.”

As for why people “give vent to their excitement and triumph by such means,” he says, this is  “a question for psychologists rather than for students of language.”

“The repetition of hubba is not a riddle either,” he adds. “Reduplication means reinforcement: the sparrow ‘says’ peep-peep, a child is soothed by tut-tut, and Germans, when knocking on wood, say toi-toi.”

In other words, he writes, “Hubba-hubba takes more time and is thus weightier than hubba. It is a natural ‘sound gesture,’ and our main question consists of finding its earliest environment.”

Could “hubba-hubba” have its roots in a foreign language?

Well, he says, the English word closest to “hubba-hubba” is “hubbub,” which “goes back to an Irish battle cry.”

So “hubba-hubba” could in theory have foreign origins too, but attempts to trace the term to a foreign source “carry no conviction and have been abandoned.”

So what can be said for sure about “hubba-hubba”?  Here’s Liberman’s conclusion:

Hubba-hubba is a natural cry, reminiscent of many similar ones. Some of them begin with an h; others with a vowel. The home of this particular cry is American English, and its source was not a foreign language. It became known around 1920, spread like wildfire in the forties, and died peacefully some time later.”

Check out our books about the English language