In 1943 the world was on fire. The campus, too, burned with change — while a little booklet taught students the genteel manners of courtship.
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Hip hooray and ballyhoo
February 12, 2008
Ballyhoo means tumult or to-do; a publicity stunt: "They're making a lot of ballyhoo about nothing."
Nobody knows just where it came from, but the word arrives in American English (in 1901) through the world of carnival, and February is the month of carnival that rises to its height at Mardi Gras.
Ballyhoo is what barkers do to attract marks to the joint by making extravagant claims about the wonders to be seen inside the tent or the riches to be paid to winners at games of chance. Among many other places, the word turns up in Busby Berkeley's fabulous film "Gold Diggers of 1935": "The hip hooray and bally hoo,/ The lullaby of Broadway."
Touring carnivals are not the popular entertainment they once were, but their influence survives in English in, for instance, the name of Bally, the casino company, begun in 1932 as a maker of pinball, slot machines, and other arcade games. We can see the remains of carnivals in the wheels found on television game shows like "The Price is Right" or "Wheel of Fortune." In the old days, the barker could control the stopping point so the game could be fixed. Since the scandalous days of "The $64,000 Question," we once again have become trusting of these games. It's shocking to imagine that Vanna White has a hidden brake linked to the wheel.
Ballyhoo has left its mark on English. Infomercials are full of expressions originating in the carnival. Moved from the midway to television Ron Popeil's Veg-O-Matic still enables slicing and dicing—and then some: "But wait, there's more"; "Set it and forget it"; "For a limited time only ". The Food and Drug Administration has taken some of the fun out of pitches for snake oil, but we still hear ballyhoo about miracle cures or weight-loss products.
An M. C. Ballyhoo appears in Nintendo games. Drew Carey invokes the "magic words" Al-a-ga-zam as contestants uncover the concealed answers on “The Price is Right.” Al-a-ga-zam comes directly from the side-show to television.
Funny spellings are part of ballyhoo; the Mistick Krew of Comus began to parade in New Orleans as early as 1857, and there's a lot of technical language to go with that celebration: trows (< throws) for beads or other trinkets thrown by revelers from floats to the eager crowd.; king cake with a plastic baby embedded in it (eaters are promised good luck if the baby turns up in their portion).
The king of the carnival (from whom the most elaborate ballyhoo can be expected) is an old character of European folklore, cousin to the Lord of Misrule who appeared at Twelfth Night as a swaggering monarch, accompanied by soldiers, priests, judges, and others mocking the real monarch (and soldiers, priests, and judges).
Ballyhoo is language we enjoy for its own sake. But it pushes the boundaries of reason; there's something subversive about it.
Richard W. Bailey is Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. His latest publication (co-edited with Colette Moore and Marilyn Miller) is an edition of a chronicle of daily life in London written by a merchant in the middle of the sixteenth century. This electronic book incorporates images of the manuscript, a transcript of the writing it contains, and a modernization of the text for easy reading. Thanks to the University of Michigan Library and the University Press, the work is freely available to all: http://www.hti.umich.edu/m/machyn