Antedating of "Jitterbug"

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Fri Aug 8 20:04:00 UTC 2008

Trivial historical note: by my childhood, ca. 1945, Jitter sauce had
the alternative name, "jitter juice," the "jitterbug" was an
alternative name for the lindy hop, and a jitterbug was a person heavy
into dancing and good at it.

The last active use of "jitterbug" that I know of occurs in a blues
recitation from the mid-'Fifties by an obviously-mature woman:

I got me
A eighteen-year-old
And they all get jealous
When they see us hug
Looking at me
With their faces frown'
I can't help it
If they just ain't down

By this time, "jitterbug" was obsolete in Saint Louis, so your guess
as to what, exactly, the word means in this context. is as good as
mine. It may have been tossed in merely to provide a rhyme and have no
special meaning beyond the obvious referent.

This is also the first instance that I ever heard of "down" being used
with positive valence. Whether used as noun, verb, or adjective,
"down" was always negative in Saint Louis. It was also the case that
we said "down [someone]" and not "put [someone] down," this having
only the meaning, "end a romantic relationship with [someone]." The
noun, "put-down," didn't exist.

Well, I had heard, "down wit' it and just can't quit it," once. This
is clearly a positive use of "down," but it was a hapax quoted to me
as a weird phrase used in Kansas City or some similar uncivilized,
outstate region. Slang terms that didn't originate locally came from
Chicago, Indianapolis, and Nashvile, these three cities having, in
those pre-Clear-Channel days, 50,000-watt R&B stations that could be
heard in Saint Louis at night.


On Fri, Aug 8, 2008 at 2:14 PM, Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Shapiro, Fred" <fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Antedating of "Jitterbug"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> OED and HDAS have as their first use of "jitterbug" a 1934 song by Cab Calloway.  ProQuest produces a slightly earlier citation:
> 1933 _New York Amsterdam News_ 6 Dec. 7 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)  Are you a "palsaddictinsominidipsomaniac"?  Columbia University members of Cab Calloway's radio "Jitter Bug Society" have written his hi-de-highness of ho-de-ho that this formidable word is the correct English term for "Jitter Bug," which in turn is Calloway vernacular for one who indulges in the cup that cheers.  During their recent tour of the country, Calloway and the members of the Cotton Club orchestra discovered that customs and habits varied in different sections, that home brew might be the popular beverage in one vicinity, while the bath-tub gin industry would be flourishing in another.  Local names for these various products also were confusing and the need was felt for a general term which would be applicable in all sections.  Thus the expression "jitter sauce" was originated among the musicians to indicate any fluid rating above 3.2 per cent, any anyone suspected of indulging an occasiona!
 l !
>  appetite for the sauce became a "jitter bug."  The quaint expressions were included in the lyric of a new song written by two of the boys in the band and they excited so much interest that scores of radio listeners are said to have written letters to ask the meaning of the phrases.  This inspired the organization of the "Jitter Bug Society," which includes many teetotallers, since the membership is made up of all fans who have grown curious enough about the expression to write letters of inquiry.
> Fred Shapiro
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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