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Heebie-jeebies

Q From A Jaye Costine: Would you know the origin of heebie-jeebies, for a state of nervous depression or anxiety?

A It seems pretty certain that it was invented about 1923 by the American cartoonist Billy De Beck. Its first appearance, in a slightly different spelling, was in one of his Barney Google cartoons in the New York American on 26 October 1923: “You dumb ox — why don't you get that stupid look offa your pan — you gimme the heeby jeebys!”.

A frame from a 1923 Barney Google strip showing Barney and Spark Plug
An early sighting of heebie-jeebies, so spelled, from a Barney Google strip of 27 December 1923.

Within a few months it started to be seen everywhere. This example is from the Iowa Davenport Democrat And Leader of 21 May 1924: “One man who saw Black Gold win the derby Saturday saw Aristides win the first Kentucky derby 50 years ago and has seen every one since. He is Matt J. Winn, general manager of the Kentucky Jockey club. To see half a hundred derby finishes and never have the heebie jeebies argues a wonderful constitution, even for a Kentuckian.” By 1927 at the latest, it had reached the UK, as witness this comment from Punch magazine in February that year: “It is interesting to observe that in spite of artificial sunlight, television, winter sports and the heebie-jeebie there are still some stalwarts who stand by the old traditional amusements of the English people.”

Where it came from, apart from his fevered imagination, is open to question. There was a dance at about the same time, and a song in 1926, both said to have originated from Native American witch-doctor chants before human sacrifices. But the dance and the song both seem to be later than the first appearance of the phrase.

Mr De Beck, by the way, is also known for other bits of now obsolescent or obsolete slang, such as hotsy-totsy and horsefeathers. But heebie-jeebies has survived to become part of the standard language.

Page created 3 Jul. 1999
Last updated 27 May 2006

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Last modified: 27 May 2006.