Q: My favorite Siouxsie and the Banshees song is “Kiss Them for Me,” which contains the line “It’s divoon, oh it’s serene.” Did the band coin “divoon” or is it a real word? It sounds like something Noel Coward made up so he could complete a difficult rhyme.
A: No, the English rock band Siouxsie and the Banshees didn’t coin the word “divoon.” It’s been around since at least the 1930s. And Coward apparently didn’t use the term, though he and his work have sometimes been described as divoon.
The 1991 song by the Banshees is a homage to the actress Jayne Mansfield. (“Divoon” was a Mansfield catchword and Kiss Them for Me was a 1957 film she did with Cary Grant.)
Is “divoon” a real word? Well, it’s as real as any other slang word. You won’t find it in standard dictionaries, but a lot of slang dictionaries have entries for “divoon,” defining the term as lovely, delightful, divine, or wonderful.
The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang describes “divoon” as an intentional alteration of “divine.”
The earliest example of the word in Random House is from Lonely Boy Blues, a 1944 novel by Alan Kapelner: “Oh, say, that soldier boy was utterly divoon!”
We’ve found an earlier example in The Happy Island, a 1938 novel by Dawn Powell: “they had both gone from mahogany toenails to a deep tearose and smoked tiny Cuban cigars and said things were ‘divoon’ one week and ‘gallicious’ the next.”
Margaret Reed discusses the intentional mangling of words in “Deliberate Mispronunciations,” a paper published in a 1932 issue of the journal American Speech.
Reed cites “anteecue” for “antique,” “genu-wine” for “genuine,” “a norange” for “an orange,” a “k-nife” for a “knife,” and many more examples.
She attributes the usage to “light-hearted youth.” But we—two not-so-tender punsters—don’t want to give youth all the credit (or discredit) for taking liberties with the language.
In a July 7, 2010, post on the Oxford Etymologist blog, Anatoly Liberman offers an explanation of why someone would turn a word like “divine” into “divoon” (though he doesn’t actually discuss “divoon”).
“The vowel sound oo has the ability of giving a word an amusing appearance,” Liberman writes. “Whoever hears snooze, canoodle, and nincompoop begins to smile; add boondoggle to this list.”
Liberman cites “Ooglification in American English Slang,” a 1977 article by the linguist Roger Wescott in the journal Verbatim:
“Hence the idea of the ‘ooglification of American slang,’ formulated in this form by American linguist Roger Wescott: if you want a word to sound slangy, substitute oo for its stressed vowel.”
[Update, Aug. 2, 2014: A reader of the blog writes us to point out that on a 1936 recording of “Let’s Sing Again,” Fats Waller refers to two of his sidemen, who have just played solos, as the “clarinoot” and the “tromboon.”]