Giving two hoots

A follow-up to my “What a hoot!” posting, which was about a set of senses of hooter that turn out almost surely to be related. One of these is mammary hooters (as in the restaurant’s name), and there’s some question about its history (though it’s clear that it predates the restaurant); there are sources that attribute the item to Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, but for reasons I’ll expand on here, I was very wary of the idea.

That’s the first hoot.

Then, as so often happens when I post about specific uses of particular lexical items, people wrote me about other uses, which are really beside the point of my posting, or about other items that are merely similar to the target item (usually phonologically). Now it can be entertaining to follow up such associations, but that’s at the risk of losing the point. Occasionally I’ve followed these associations, though I try to mark associative chaining off from the main line of the posting, as when I branched from a posting on Ficus plants to a collection of loosely fig-related other things: the fig leaf of modesty, Fig Newtons, figgy pudding, giving a fig for, the fig sign,

So: soon to loosely hoot-related things. That’s the second hoot.

Where do (uses of) words come from? It seems likely that Martin had a hand in popularizing the term, and Martin might (or might not) have invented it on his own, but other people, probably a great many other people, almost surely also invented it on their own, independently; some innovations are so natural that in a sense they’re just out there, waiting for people to stumble on them. Few of these creative moments will be remembered or recorded. The usage diffuses from sources, or not; if it does diffuse, and becomes sufficiently widespread, eventually lexicographers will put it in a dictionary, but a first dictionary citation will almost never be the first actual use.

As a result, we can hardly ever say who “invented” a (use of) a word.

In the case of mammary hooters, several commenters on my previous posting dug around and found pre-Martin occurrences of the usage. No surprise.

Now, some notes on the mechanisms that give rise to new usages. These mechanisms are especially prominent in informal language and in spoken language, so they’re relevant here; some of them are notably playful. (This inventory isn’t inteded to be exhaustive, by the way.)

First, semantic specialization and extension of existing lexical items, potentially leading to distinguishable new usages, as in my 8/2/15 posting on this topic, where I looked at the specialization of spoiler in different contexts and the extension of quarter, where a use

to refer to one of four parts into which a settled area can be divided is extended to reference to any distinguishable part of such an area, especially ‘a part of a town or city having a specific character or use’ (NOAD2) [leading to talk of a city (Ghent) with (only) two quarters]

Then metaphorical and metonymic transfers — as when the semantically specialized slang term honker ‘nose’ (that is, ‘body-part that honks’) is used metaphorically to refer to the penis, especially the erect penis (that is, as a synonym of boner). A similar development gets us from the semantically specialized slang terms honker and hooter (both ‘nose’) to metaphorical reference to female breasts in honkers and hooters ‘boobs’.

Then type shifts in nouns, common to proper (as in the restaurant name Hooters), proper to common, count to mass, and mass to count.

Then the use of productive word formation (in derivation and compounding) to create unfamiliar but perfectly regular lexical items. So even if it hasn’t been in your experience, you can use the productive derivational suffix -er to create hooter ‘thing or one that hoots’, which can then be specialized to refer to owls, automobile horns, noses, or whatever.

Patterns of word formation can include less than fully regular patterns (in cartoonosity, creepitude, suffixiness); zero-derivation (in verbings and nounings, with various semantic effects); and subtractive word formation (in truncations, clippings, back-formations, portmanteaus, and alphabetic abbreviations — initialisms and acronyms).

This is a huge range of mechanisms for creating new usages, and people make use of them all the time, inventively producing vast numbers of lexical items, many more than any dictionary could accommodate, or would want to. (I comment on some of these mechanisms fairly often, and have systematic collections of a few, like 2-part back-formed verbs, and even this amount of material sometimes seems overwhelming.)

In any case, multiple independent invention is all over the place, and we shouldn’t expect to be surprised to see it the history of mammary hooters.

hoot-related items. In no particular order.

I’ll start with the vexing noun hootenanny. A very brief story from NOAD2:

informal, chiefly US   an informal gathering with folk music and sometimes dancing. ORIGIN 1920s (originally US, denoting a gadget or ‘thingamajig’): of unknown origin.

More detail in OED2:

hoot(e)nanny, hootananny: Origin unknown. orig. U.S. dial.
1. A ‘thingumajig’.
2. An informal session or concert of folk music and singing.

with these citations (in full):

1929   Amer. Speech 5 151   Hootananny, the same as gadget.
1940   Washington (Seattle) New Dealer 25 July 4 (advt.)   The New Dealer’s Midsummer Hootenanny. You Might Even Be Surprised!
1959   Times 10 Jan. 7/6   All over the British Isles today at ceilidhes, hootennanys and similar gatherings in pubs, clubs and private houses, folk music is flourishing as it has not done for over a century.
1962   W. Schirra in Into Orbit 31   Don’t worry about it. That’s just the hootenanny valve on the watchamacallit fluttering a little.
1963   Daily Mail 11 Sept. 8/4   Hootenanny…is to the folk singer what a jam session is to the jazzman.

(Note the late ‘thingumajig’ cite, from 1962. And the spread of thefolk-music sense to the U.K.)

Wikipedia has a rather fantastical entry that I won’t review here, except to say that it starts everythng in Scotland.


Note the owl.

Hootenanny on tv. From Wikipedia:

Hootenanny is an American musical variety television show broadcast on ABC from April 1963 to September 1964. The program was hosted by Jack Linkletter. It primarily featured pop-oriented folk music acts, including The Journeymen, The Limeliters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels, The Brothers Four, Ian & Sylvia, The Big 3, Hoyt Axton, Judy Collins, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, The Tarriers, Bud & Travis, and the Smothers Brothers. Although both popular and influential, the program is primarily remembered today for the controversy created when the producers blacklisted certain folk music acts, which then led to a boycott by others.

Hoot Gibson. Into the movies. From Wikipedia:


Hoot Gibson (August 6, 1892 – August 23, 1962) was an American rodeo champion and a pioneer cowboy film actor, director and producer.

Born Edmund Richard Gibson in Tekamah, Nebraska, he learned to ride a horse while still a very young boy. His family moved to California when he was seven years old. As a teenager he worked with horses on a ranch, which led to competition on bucking broncos at area rodeos. Given the nickname “Hoot Owl” by co-workers, the name evolved to just “Hoot”. [Owls again!]

… From the 1920s through the 1940s, Hoot Gibson was a major film attraction, ranking second only to Tom Mix as a western film box office draw. He successfully made the transition to talkies and as a result became a highly paid performer. He appeared in his own comic books and was wildly popular until singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers displaced him. (Wikipedia link)

Another Hoot Gibson. Apparently nicknamed after the earlier one. From Wikipedia:


Robert Lee “Hoot” Gibson (born October 30, 1946), (Capt, USN, Ret.), is a former American naval officer and aviator, test pilot, aeronautical engineer, and a retired NASA astronaut, as well as a professional pilot whom currently races regularly at the annual Reno Air Races.

Hooterville. I’d always thought that the fictional tv town got its name from the train — hoot, hpot — that served it. But that’s not the story its creators told (but then they were unrealiable). From Wikipedia:


Hooterville is a fictional town that was the setting of the American television shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, two rural-oriented sitcoms created or commissioned by Paul Henning for Filmways and CBS.

Little concrete or reliable information can be gleaned from the two shows about the town, as references in individual episodes are rife with inconsistencies, contradictions, geographic impossibilities and continuity errors. The writers of the two shows would change the alleged details about the town or its surroundings at will for the purpose of cracking a joke and left certain details (such as its state) purposely vague and unexplained.

… The town of Hooterville was founded in 1868 by Horace Hooter.

[town characters included:] Fred Ziffel, a pig farm owner; Doris “Ruthie” Ziffel, Fred’s loud and nosey wife (the couple also owned an intelligent pig named Arnold); Charley Pratt and Floyd Smoot, the engineer and conductor, respectively, of the local train, the Hooterville Cannonball

(Just wanted to get Arnold the Pig and the train into the story.)

Hooterville is not to be confused with Whoville, where the Whos live (Horton Hears a Who!).

Hoot mon! The stereotypical Scots (or possibly “junk Scots”) exclamation. From OED2:

Sc. and north. dial.  An ejaculation expressing dissatisfaction with, or impatient and somewhat contemptuous dismissal of, a statement or notion: nearly synonymous with tut!, with which also it appears to be combined in the more emphatic hoot toot (hout tout, hut tut). [variants hout, hut, hoots, houts, huts] [first cite 1681]

Etymology:  Apparently a natural utterance of objection or repulsion, there being parallel forms in many languages: e.g. Swedish hut begone, used in taking one up sharply, Welsh hwt off! away!, Irish ut out! pshaw!, Gaelic ut! ut! interj. of disapprobation or dislike. [That’s three Celtic languages plus Swedish.]

Two movies plus a song:

Hoot Mon! is a 1919 American silent comedy film featuring Stan Laurel. (Wikipedia link)

Hoots Mon! is a 1940 British comedy film directed by Roy William Neill and starring Max Miller, Florence Desmond and Hal Walters. It follows an English comedian who attempts his luck on the Scottish stage, and develops a rivalry with a local performer. (Wikipedia link)

“Hoots Mon” is a song written by Harry Robinson, and performed by Lord Rockingham’s XI. It was a number-one hit single for three weeks in 1958 on the UK Singles Chart. It is based on the old Scottish folk song “A Hundred Pipers”. It was also one of the first rock and roll songs to feature the Hammond organ, which would become popular in rock and roll music the following year with Dave Cortez’s “The Happy Organ”.
The record is mostly instrumental, punctuated by four stereotypical Scottish phrases:
“Och aye”, an exclamation meaning “Yes”
“Hoots mon”, an interjection usually meaning “Hey man!”
“There’s a moose loose aboot this hoose” (“There’s a mouse loose about this house”), a standard cliché highlighting Scots language pronunciation.
“It’s a braw, bricht, moonlicht nicht.” (“It’s a fine, bright moonlit night”)
(Wikipedia link)

Note OED – Wikipedia conflict on the meaning/use.

Negaive polarity hoot. In there with give a damn, care/give a fig for, know squat about, etc., there’s negative polarity NPI hoot. From OED2:

colloq. (orig. U.S.)  The smallest amount or particle; a whit or atom. Chiefly with negative and in phrases to give (also care, matter) two hoots (or a hoot).

Two cites, one showing the ‘small amount’ use, another showing the NPI use:

1878   J. H. Beadle Western Wilds xxxviii. 615,   I got onto my reaper and banged down every hoot of it before Monday night.

1923   R. D. Paine Comrades of Rolling Ocean xii. 214,   I am glad of that even if he did tell me that as a supercargo I wasn’t worth a hoot in hades.

From 1923 on, all the cites are for the NPI.

One Response to “Giving two hoots”

  1. Nancy Friedman Says:

    “Hootlessness” is the state of mind in which you don’t give a hoot about achieving your goals. I wrote about it several years ago:

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