The Grammarphobia Blog

Was the storm a shoo-shoo?

Q: I woke up in my Hell’s Kitchen apartment the other day, looked out the window expecting to see a storm-wracked New York, and thought, “Well, that was a shoo-shoo.” Growing up in New Orleans, we learned that an unexploded firecracker was a shoo-shoo. I wondered if this went beyond my hometown and I found an article saying the reduplicative usage was brought home to Louisiana by doughboys returning from World War I.

A: Yes, the recent “storm of the century” was indeed a shoo-shoo in New York City as well as in our part of southern New England. And “shoo-shoo” is a fine example of reduplication—a subject we recently discussed on the blog.

However, we doubt that doughboys from Louisiana brought the usage home with them from the battlefields of World War I. Or that the usage was inspired, as the article says, by problems with the Chauchat light machine gun.

The Dictionary of American Regional English has an example of the usage in Louisiana dating from 1917, when the doughboys were still heading for Europe, not returning home.

The first members of the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe in June of 1917, and the force wasn’t involved in significant combat until 1918, the last year of the war.

DARE defines “shoo-shoo” as “a failed firecracker that is later broken open and lit.” The dictionary suggests that the name is probably “echoic”—an imitation of the hissing sound made when the powder from a split firecracker is ignited.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a list of Louisiana terms submitted by James Edward Routh of Tulane University to Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society:

“A fire-cracker that has failed to go off. The ‘shoo-shoo’ is broken and lighted for the flare of the loose powder.”

DARE says the usage is “chiefly” seen in Louisiana. Nearly all of its most recent reports of “shoo-shoo” (1967-68) are from Louisiana, though the dictionary does have a couple from Hawaii for “shoo-shoo baby.”

We suspect that the Hawaiian reports were inspired by “Shoo Shoo Baby,” an Andrews Sisters hit, or by a B-17 Flying Fortress named after the song. The World War II plane is now on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force in Ohio.

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