Dear Word Detective: I just overheard my co-worker on the phone telling someone she had the “heebie jeebies.” It brought up a memory from the daze of my youth, when I lived in a hippie house in Michigan in the 1970′s. From the ceiling of our recreation room, the household had hung a scary mask complete with dreadlocks of straw, which was named, yes, Heebie Jeebie. During our petite soirées, this mask would slowly twist in the air and, in a mournful chant, someone would exhale “heebie jeebie,” sending us into fits of giggles. Please kind sir, lift the cloud covering the origin of this evocative phrase. — Anonymous.
Ah yes, the Age of Giggles. I remember sitting in my living room with a group of friends very late one night in 1969 and watching the plaster of the wall across the room spontaneously crack and collapse into a pile on the floor. We probably should have fled the building, or at least left the room, but we were way too busy laughing.
Human beings are naturally anxious creatures, which is why every culture has a wide variety of words to describe the feelings that make up the spectrum of fear, from vague premonitions of doom to nameless dread to blind panic. The “heebie-jeebies” lie somewhere in the lower ranges of the fear index, and are usually defined as “a feeling of nervousness; the jitters,” or “a feeling of intense apprehension.” The “heebie-jeebies” are what you get when you’re home alone watching TV and the cat keeps staring intently at the darkness behind your chair. It’s probably nothing. Almost certainly not a 50 pound flying vampire spider.
While the origins of other terms for this state of unease, such as “the willies” or “the wimwams,” are lost in the mists of time, we do, remarkably, happen to know exactly where “heebie-jeebies” first appeared. It was in October 1923, in the popular “Barney Google” comic strip, drawn at that time by its creator, Billy De Beck (“You dumb ox — why don’t you get that stupid look offa your pan — you gimme the heeby jeebys!”). By November of that year De Beck had changed the spelling to “heebie jeebies,” and he continued to use the phrase frequently in the strip.
Such was the popularity of “Barney Google” (it’s still running today, under the title “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith”) that “heebie jeebies” quickly captured the public imagination and spread around the world. Interestingly, “heebie-jeebies” wasn’t the only famous De Beck coinage; he’s also credited with “hotsy-totsy” (meaning “excellent, just right”), “sweet mama,” and “horsefeathers.”
So did De Beck actually dream up “heebie jeebies” out of thin air, or did he borrow it from some now-lost source? There have been attempts to trace the phrase to various ancient chants and incantations, but no one has ever made a convincing case that Billy De Beck didn’t simply invent “heebie jeebies,” which seems pretty hotsy-totsy to me.