Tuesday, October 16, 2007

heebie-jeebie (adj.)

So, here's a tiny lexical question I've noticed for the longest time: (to have/get/give smbdy) the heebie-jeebies is solidly established in American English, probably beyond. The origin is widely traced to the Barney Google comic, e.g. by Michael Quinlon here (also the source of the image) and by some dictionaries. (Sorry for the offensive image, but it was the oldest one I found and the usage warrants illustration.)

Here's the more interesting point: For a while, I've heard people use heebie-jeebie (no -s) as an adjective. A friend of mine refers to academic work he really regards as downright disreputable as "heebie-jeebie shit". I've found enough attestations of it to make clear that it's no fluke ... the usage is out there. Derivationally, it's not hard to understand, I suppose: What looks like a plural noun could easily lose the -s and get zero-derived to an adjective. But I'd completely forgotten but it's actually famously attested (see second picture).


Q. Pheevr said...

Hmm... do you have any examples where it absolutely has to be interpreted as an adjective? Because the two that you've cited here look to me as if they could just be attributive uses of the noun—a "heebie-jeebie hullabaloo" would be a hullabaloo of heebie-jeebies, and "heebie-jeebie shit" is sort of analogous with, say, "voodoo economics."

In a preliminary attempt to answer my own question, a Googling of "very heebie-jeebie" yields only a small smattering of results, of which a few are actually "very heebie-jeebie-inducing." So it seems as if truly adjectival heebie-jeebie may be fairly rare.

Mr. Verb said...

Good point. I saw one example in checking around that was 'oh yeah, adjective for sure', and now I can't remember what it was. Anyway, most of the examples could indeed be nouns. So then it's developed a singular, I guess?

The Ridger, FCD said...

How about this:

Our singing is much more heebie jeebie now!

or this:

PaintHorse ~ Very Heebie Jeebie story!

But there's not much out there that couldn't be straight noun-noun modification.

Mr. Verb said...

Whoa, the first one is way better than the one I saw. Thanks!

Q. Pheevr said...

Wow. I wonder what heebie-jeebie singing sounds like?

Ben Zimmer said...

I'd imagine heebie-jeebie singing sounds like this. (Lyrics here.)