Hurrah’s Nest

Play it again, schmuck.

Dear Word Detective: Could you tell me anything about the saying “this room looks like a hoorah’s nest with the hoorah gone,” or something like that? — Birdy.

You know what’s scary? When someone asks you a question about a phrase, and you know that you’ve heard the phrase before, but you can’t remember any of the details. So you do what any normal earthling would do and plug it into Google (motto: “We Have Replaced Your Brain. Why Fight It?”), and hit Search. And then the first result that pops up is a column you wrote about the phrase many years ago, followed by a bunch of people quoting what you wrote. I have the horrible feeling that if I were to look up “feeb” in the dictionary there’d be a picture of me.

The phrase you’ve encountered is “hurrah’s nest,” and it means something in a state of great disorder or raucous confusion, whether it’s a bedroom in chaos or a crowd rioting in the street. “Hurrah’s nest” first appeared in the US, in the early 19th century (“Everything was pitched about in grand confusion. There was a complete hurrah’s nest,” 1840). The question, of course, is what a “hurrah” might be, and why its nest is always such a mess.

The “hurrah” part of the phrase is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the same “hurrah” we shout when our team wins, an exclamation of excitement, approval and joy at victory. (The form “hooray” is perhaps more common today, but it’s the same word.) “Hurrah” can also be used as a noun to mean a great hubbub or fanfare, such as greets a rock star stepping on stage. It can also, however, mean a scene of great confusion or disorder.

“Hurrah” dates back to the late 17th century, and although most exclamations of joy, anger, pain and surprise (such as “Ouch!” or “Hey!”) have no intrinsic meaning, “hurrah” may actually have a bit of semantic history to it. We know that “hurrah” is a modification of the exclamation “huzzah,” itself about a century older. “Hurrah” was said to be a favored battle cry of soldiers in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and “huzzah” was apparently popular among sailors of the period. Both of these words may have been strongly influenced by the Middle High German words “hurr” and “hurra,” cries meaning “move forward” or “hurry,” used by hunters pursuing game as well as by soldiers attacking the enemy. There is also some evidence that “huzzah” is related to the Scots word “heize,” meaning “lift or hoist,” and was originally used as an exhortation to sailors hoisting sails.

You’ll notice the absence of anything in that history likely to build itself a nest, but there’s a simple explanation for “hurrah’s nest.” Given the use of “hurrah” to mean “a state of complete confusion,” it’s a short but playful leap to imagine a “hurrah” as some sort of great, messy animal with terrible housekeeping skills. Thus the mess left behind by a loud and chaotic “hurrah” might be said to be a “hurrah’s nest.”

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