Woo-Hoo for “Woo Woo”

Woo-woo tips mingle with practical pointers. “Eat from heart-shaped bowls, and put heart stickers on your refrigerator,” Minich recommends. (Why? “To keep the spirit of love alive,” duh.)

–The New York Times, March 27, 2016, review of Whole Detox, by Deanna Minich

… “Valley of Love,” a logy, woo-woo drama about a former couple who, at the request of their son, who killed himself earlier that same year, have come to find answers in the California desert.

–The New York Times, March 24, 2016

“I fluctuate between being very practical and very impulsive, and this was a very impulsive decision,” continued Mr. [Tim] Daly. … “Not to get too woo-woo, but there was a good vibe and I just kind of leapt.”

–The New York Times, February 5, 2016

Clearly, woo woo has hit center stage, or at least that portion of it occupied by The New York Times. And what exactly is woo woo? Deepak Chopra offered a rather defensive definition in a 2011 Huntington Post piece: “It used to annoy me to be called the king of woo woo. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, ‘woo woo’ is a derogatory reference to almost any form of unconventional thinking, aimed by professional skeptics who are self-appointed vigilantes dedicated to the suppression of curiosity.”

Some sources attribute the term — presumably an onomatopoetic rendition of the eerie soundtrack that plays when mystical folk unleash their mysticism — to James Randi, the longtime magician/skeptic whose career of debunking was recently chronicled in the documentary film An Honest Liar. The earliest reference I’ve been able to find is from a 1983 edition of New Age Journal, cited in a 1984 Philadelphia Inquirer article by Steven X. Rea:

George Winston, who practices yoga and who currently has three albums on the jazz charts … has jokingly called this crowd the “woo-woos.” In a 1983 interview in New Age Journal, Winston, asked if he knew who comprised his audience, answered that there were some classical fans, some jazz, some pop and “all the woo-woos.”

“You know,” he added, “there’s real New Age stuff that has substance, and then there’s the woo-woo. A friend of mine once said, ‘George, you really love these woo-woos, don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes, I do love them,’ and I do. I mean, I’m half woo-woo myself.”

Woo woo soon developed from a noun to an adjective, as in this 1988 quote from a journal called Training: “Subsidiary gurus, licensed to deliver high woo-woo programs developed by others, often will remind you of TV weathermen.” (Interjection-noun-adjective is a rather unusual course of anthimeria.) The Times’ first use came two years after that, in an article about the Earth First movement: “In small towns among the redwoods, new-age settlers have appeared in tie-dyed wardrobes and dreadlocks. They work as carpenters, holistic healers, mandolin players, giving themselves names like ‘Sequoia’ and ‘The Man Who Walks in the Woods.’ Within Earth First, these neo-hippies are known as the ‘woo-woo element.’”

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Hugh Herbert

While looking into the origin of the mystic-mocking term, I was struck by how many other different ways it has been used, including as the catch phrase of Hugh Herbert, a rubber-faced comedy actor of the 1930s and ’40s. Wikipedia tells us:

His screen character was usually absent-minded and flustered. He would flutter his fingers together and talk to himself, repeating the same phrases: ‘hoo-hoo-hoo, wonderful, wonderful, hoo hoo hoo!’ So many imitators (including Curly Howard of The Three Stooges and Etta Candy in the Wonder Woman comic book series) copied the catchphrase as ‘woo woo’ that Herbert himself began to use ‘woo woo’ rather than ‘hoo hoo’ in the 1940s.

Interestingly, a 1938 article by Lucius Beebe in the New York Herald-Tribune associates the phrase with other comedians: “Originated by the Ritz Brothers and long accepted in the West as a cry of dismay, festivity, or general acclamation, the screaming of ‘woo woo’ has penetrated the New York bars.”

People nicknamed “Woo Woo” include:

  • Arnie (Woo Woo) Ginsberg, a retired Boston disk jockey, one of whose trademark sound effects was a train whistle. Jonathan Richman referenced him in the 1989 song “Fender Stratocaster”: “Like Woo Woo Ginsberg at the juke box joint/You hear the sound and you get the point.”
  • Legendary Chicago Cub fan Ronnie (Woo Woo) Wickers. (Not to be confused with Philadelphia Phillie fan Brad Golden, who shouts, “Everybody hits! Wha Hoo!”)
  • In the 1940s, 15-year-old Ellsworth (Sonny) Wisecarver Jr. developed a habit of running off with older women, garnering him national publicity and the moniker the Woo Woo Kid. Fun fact: A 1987 film based on Wisecarver’s exploits, In the Mood, was the first starring role of Patrick (McDreamy) Dempsey.

The Wisecarver woo woo seems to stem from the term’s use to denote a sense of risque hijinks, sort of the intersection of “hubba hubba,” “ooh la la,” and, in another bit of onomatopoeia, a wolf whistle, with an implied association with the idea of pitching woo. In 1960, Time magazine illustrated the glamour of the financial writer Silvia Porter by quoting a letter to her lecture agency, “Our second choice would not have the allure and woo-woo of Miss Porter.”

Then there was the Hamilton Jordan affair. As readers who were past the age of reason in 1978 may recall, Jordan, a top adviser in the Carter administration, made headlines that year when, at a Washington bar, he supposedly spit his drink on a woman’s blouse. The White House thereupon issued a 33-page white paper denying the allegation. The Washington Post reported:

The White House rebuttal issued yesterday rested heavily on the statements of Daniel V. Marshall III, a bartender at Sarsfield’s at 2524 L St. NW, where the incident occurred. …

Marshall’s version of what happened is that Jordan was quickly surrounded by young women who wanted to be near the “celebrity.” He said Jordan “woofed down” a steak and drank a beer and two Amaretto-and-creams.

The women were coming up to Jordan “and ‘woo-woo,’ you know what I mean?” Marshall asked.

I could discuss South Park’s Woo Woo PC Chant, the Woo Woo cocktail (vodka, peach schnapps, and cranberry juice), and Jeffrey Osborne’s 1986 “You Should Be Mine (the Woo Woo Song),” but you get the idea. Woo woo has an uncanny semantic productivity. Not to get too woo woo on you.

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