Like a rut, but cool.
Dear Word Detective: I was watching Antiques Roadshow and saw what they called a “transitional piece of pottery from the Neoclassic to the Modern” by an artist named Gruebe who was working in the ’30s and ’40s. The decoration was simple leaves, but the artist left the “hand throwing” lines in the body of the piece, making it look “groovy” to me. Could the work of this artist be the derivation of “groovy”? And how many countless thousands of others have made this connection before me? — Jim Queen.
As far as I can tell, you’re it, Jim. That doesn’t mean that your insight is wrong, of course. Einstein was the only person who thought certain things, and he turned out to be right. Then again, Larry down the road from us thought certain other things, and he’s no longer allowed to play with sharp objects. This is why I keep all my major discoveries to myself.
“Groovy” is known today, of course, as quintessential 1960s “counterculture” slang meaning “excellent, great, very fashionable” (“There are a lot of guys going round with groovy hair-styles,” 1968). Having lived through that period and social milieu myself, however, I must note that anyone in my circle of friends who had used “groovy” in anything but a sarcastic tone would have been suspected of being an undercover cop. And it wasn’t just “groovy” that was considered bogus. Several other supposedly popular catch phrases of the day (e.g., “far out,” “peace, baby” and “down with the system”) were actually popular only in the imaginations of “Dragnet” and “Mod Squad” scriptwriters.
The emergence of “groovy” in the 1960s was actually a sort of reincarnation of the word, which had first appeared in the jazz subculture of the 1930s and was originally spelled “groovey” (“‘Groovey,’ name applied to state of mind which is conducive to good playing,” American Speech, 1937). “Groovey” itself was based on the phrase “in the groove,” used by jazz musicians to describe playing that was smooth and effortlessly excellent.
“Groove” is, of course, a very old word, derived from a Germanic root meaning “pit,” the same root which gave us the English word “grave.” The original sense of “groove” was, in fact, “mining shaft or pit,” and it wasn’t until the 17th century that “groove” acquired its modern meaning of “channel or hollow cut in the surface of something.” By 1902, however, “groove” was being used to mean the spiral track on the surface of a phonograph record in which the needle rides. So when jazz musicians spoke of “being in the groove” while playing music, it meant that they felt (or sounded) as if they were producing the music as easily, fluently and flawlessly as a phonograph needle following the grooves on a record. Not that there was anything mechanical about their playing; to be truly “in the groove” is to lose oneself in the creative process, what some writers call being “in the flow.”
Anyway, the bottom line is that the origin of “groovy” has nothing to do with Mr. Gruebe and his pottery, but, considering the overlap of the jazz and arts worlds in the 1930s and 40s, it’s entirely possible that Gruebe himself had to suffer through some labored puns about his “groovy” work.