IPA: /ˈ hʌɫəbəˌ lu ː/

Etymology: Heavily Disputed

In 1898 James A. H. Murray published an appeal to his friends, regarding the earliest use in text of the word 'hullaballoo,' as part of his passion project, the Oxford English Dictionary. The response he eventually placed in the OED for this word is from the 1760 novel The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves by Tobias Smollett, in the line, “I would there was a blister on this plaguy tongue of mine for making such a hollo-ballo.” In this use, hollo-ballo referred to an uproar or commotion.

Murray settled for this source, though in additional annotation he remarks that hullaballoo is likely the exclamation "hullo" after several morphological processes are applied to it, namely reduplication (yielding "hulloloo") and infixation of the meaningless syllable "ba." His hypothesis also considers the word partially originates in the Scots language, from balow or baloo, which are found in Scottish nursery rhymes earlier than Smollett's work.

Yet another British origin is "hurly-burly," boisterous activity, attested as early as 1540 and found in Shakespeare's play Macbeth, in the line “When the Hurly-burly’s done, / When the battle’s lost, and won.” Hurly-burly appears to be a rhyming reduplication of "hurling," a commotion or disturbance, similar to other rhyme-reduplicated English words like namby-pamby, razzle dazzle, and hokey pokey.

A French origin, contemporary with hurly-burly, has been suggested: hurluburlu, 'oddball, scatterbrained,' used by François Rabelais.

Another possibility is that hullaballoo originates in India, where hullabol still currently refers to public demonstrations, protests, and riots. "Hulla-" may derive from hamla 'attack' or halhala 'ululation,' which pass via Urdu from Persian. "Bol" comes from the Hindi verb bolna 'utter, say.'

Finally, perhaps the simplest proposed etymology for hullaballoo is that it is an onomatopoeia imitating the noise of a crowd gathered in one place. Several other synonyms such as "hubbub" are well documented as onomatopoeia, and many languages feature similar-sounding onomatopoeia with virtually equivalent meanings, or else words like Finnish hälinä, 'hustle and bustle,' which derive from onomatopoeic verbs meaning "voice" or "speech." The onomatopoeic theory of hullaballoo would adequately explain its apparent convergent evolution in both sound and meaning, with words from cultures that had no known contact with Britain prior to Smollett's novel.

Hunting calls used by many cultures also feature convergence in sound and meaning to "hullaballoo," and it is unclear if the "crowd disturbance" version of these words predates or postdates the "hunting call" versions, or if each culture ultimately means a generic loudness and commotion, which then narrows in meaning.


"What's all the hullaballoo? You'd think there was a war happening out here!"

Migration and Evolution

Hullaballoo remains stable in common usage in the UK, across all age demographics. In the US, it has gained a connotation of being used by stodgy elderly people, of the sort who might also say "Get off my lawn, ya' hooligans!"

Iron Noder 2019, 5/30

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.