The Definition of Jitterbug
People trudging through history or talking to old timers might be confused when the word jitterbug seems to mean different things to different people.
Even the modern swing era has invented entirely new definitions (discussed below.) So, I set about searching for the etymology of one of the most common words used to describe our passion. First, let’s look at what the dictionaries say.
Oxford English Dictionary (concise): A fast dance performed to swing music, popular in the 1940s.
Concise, but oddly not very descriptive or informative, despite it being the recognized authority on language and etymology by those who wear thick sweaters.
Merriam-Webster: a jazz variation of the two-step in which couples swing, balance, and twirl in standardized patterns and often with vigorous acrobatics.
Well, that makes it clear. Unless you have no idea what a two-step is, how to visualize couples “balancing” together, and take “standardized” to imply that the steps don’t leave a lot of room for improvisation.
This isn’t surprising, however, because dictionaries are notoriously bad at anything pertaining to slang words and their etymology.
For instance, Webster even claims the first known use of the word Jitterbug is 1938. Yet, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers did a film short called “Jittering Jitterbugs” in 1937, and the term must have been around at least a few years earlier than that if someone named a motion picture after it. A quick search on IMDB shows that Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party was made in 1935.
So, here’s a quick history of the word “Jitterbug,” and why it means different things to different people.
By almost all accounts, the word Jitterbug was first used to describe a drunkard who had the “jitters,” or tremors. At some point, someone probably saw a dancer on the dance floor who had no control and just shook, bounced, or kicked around, and probably said something to the effect of “That person looks like a jitterbug.” The slang stuck, and the word jitterbug was applied to those who were really bad at Swing dancing.
This would explain why Norma Miller is vocal about the fact that she wasn’t a “Jitterbug.”
In an interview for Swedish Television, Savoy dancer Al Minns said: “The jitterbug… We called people who would just jump on the floor, without any knowledge of what they were doing, and go mad with the drumming what not and just go boodedoo boodedoo doo and shakin’ their head and just jump up and down without any control … that’s what we called the jitterbug.”
Any dancers that I’ve heard the term “Jitterbug” in a negative context were New York dancers who started in the early period (early to mid 30s). As Marshall and Jean Stearn mention in their book Jazz Dance, the Lindy Hop existed as a small cult for many years before it spread.
“Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party” in 1935 mentions the word jitterbug perhaps around the point of change for the definition. Especially since it was, for many people outside of New York, the first time they had ever heard the word.
In the short, Cab tells his friends he’s going to a jitterbug party. His friend asks him what that is.
“Why, that’s a party where everyone gets the jitters and goes bug.” Cab says, as if the answer were obvious.
His song “Call of the Jitterbug,” which finishes the soundie, is full of lyrics that mainly only equated jitterbugging with its drinking aspect. However, it’s sung very fast, muffled, and no one really drinks at the party. All that people are doing is dancing to Cab’s swing music. The soundie ends with the line of them doing a lot of shim-sham-esque steps, and Cab Calloway proclaiming “That’s’ why we’re called Jitterbugs.”
As hinted at earlier, Cab Calloway used the word Jitterbug quite a lot, and no one could sell a word better than Cab Calloway. Cab’s use of jazz slang was a marketing tool that sold not only him as a cool, in-the-know and entertaining performer, but it also sold the entire culture of swing and Harlem to the mainstream world.
The lit and dance geek in me wants to claim that Cab Calloway has probably introduced more words into the common language than any other single person since Shakespeare (Mainly, I think he was good at introducing words–using the slang he heard a lot on stage, films, and in his books. Though, he probably invented a few of them, too.) He had his own little dictionary of Harlem slang published, which included the word “killer diller” “cat” “alligator” “Are you hep to the jive?” and tons of others. Called the Cat-alogue and published first in 1938 and then multiple times until the mid 40s, it defined “Jitterbug” as simply “A swing fan.” So, we know that at least in 1938, the term already had its new positive definition.
Most historians pinpoint the date swing exploded into the mainstream as 1935, when Benny Goodman played the Pallamar ballroom in California and suddenly realized his touring band could finally get something to eat and stop living off of cigarettes.** After a few years, it was the most popular music in the country, especially with youth.
So, if you first started learning your Lindy Hop or having heard of Lindy Hop after the mid-thirties, when the rest of the country caught on to Harlem’s secret, then you might have heard the word “Jitterbug” to describe it.
When pop culture gets a new word, it often doesn’t look into it’s background before throwing it around. (Just think of the word “awesome.” Yes, that hot dog was damn good, but were you actually awed by it?*** )
Not only di Jitterbugging come to describe Lindy Hopping, but all swing dances. Even the Balboa-swing done on Venice Beach got tagged with the headline “Venice Beach offers new take on Jitterbugging” in a newsreel. The soundie “Public Jitterbug number 1” involved police searching after a tap dancer.
It doesn’t help that “jitterbug” is a fun word to say and evokes a lot of energy and action–something descriptive of swing dancing. With this in mind, it makes sense why jitterbug was such a contagious word, unlike “Lindy Hopper” or “swing dancer,” one of which which is kind of clumsy, and the other boring compared to what it describes.
Once again, like a wondering drunkard, the word Jitterbug could not stay in place. At some unknown point, probably in modern time, it became a description of single-step 6-count East Coast swing. (If you know more info about this, please let me know.) I remember hearing in 1999 things like “Do you do Lindy Hop or Jitterbug?”
It became an easy word to describe the modern dance that started most of us all–done to swing music instead of at ballroom dances, and often with a stamping foot instead of anything a ballroom instructor would teach, I’m sure the ballroom community would be thankful we weren’t calling it East Coast Arthur Murray Swing.
And, in the modern times, the Lindy Hop scene has adopted a specific definition of “jitterbug.” The National Jitterbug Championships and Camp Jitterbug both chose the name jitterbug, from my understanding, to convey the emotional spirit of the original swing dancers, not just the technique involved in swing dancing. Even then, I imagine both of those organizers have a slightly different opinion about what that definition entails.
But that’s perfect. As we have seen, who would expect a word like jitterbug to stand still?
**–There is a great etymology story linked to this that, like most etymology stories and The Davinci Code is probably 98% blatant lie and doesn’t even make sense. But, I’ll post it anyway, cause it IS a good story.
It goes like this:
Goodman’s tour bus arrived in California with an empty bank account and a feeling of dread. The hot jazz music he loved to play at the concerts simply wasn’t getting interest. So, he decided to play it safe, and only play the popular “sweet music” to the sold-out crowd at the Pallamar. When it didn’t seem to be getting any response, he perhaps felt the end of his band’s touring days were near. (This all really did happen. Here’s where the story goes, though.) He looked back to the boys and said. “Well, if we’re going to go out, we’re going to go out swingin’.” (As in, the boxing term.) The boys started playing the hot jazz music and the concert hall exploded with joy. Thus, “swing” music.
Good story, and Goodman starting to play killer jazz music and the hall exploding is definitely true. But as for the part where the the term “swing music” comes from him telling the boys he was going “to go out swinging,” it doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. It makes more sense to think that “swing” naturally came to describe the buoyancy and flow of the rhythm, which was changing from the staccato Charleston and Dixieland style of jazz. After all, swung beats swing from one to the next, like Cab Calloway’s baton.
***–Please let me know if you ever eat a hot dog that inspires you with reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. I’ll take two, please. Extra ketchup.
Also, as a reader pointed out, I subconsciously alluded to an Eddie Izzard bit when I wrote this section. Props to Eddie.
BTW, another good example is the word Hoofer. Today, we refer to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as hoofers. The original hoofers, however, would claim that Fred and Gene, though great dancers, were not hoofers because they danced with their whole bodies, where as hoofers only danced with their feet. The word, after all, comes from “hooves,” and it’s hard to imagine a horse dancing with it’s entire body. But, the public had a vague idea that hoofing=tap dancing. So they called Fred and Gene hoofers, and the name stuck, the word’s definition changed.
****–I’d also like to shout out to dance history nut David Rehm for some of his help in bouncing ideas off of.
For more information, I recommend reading up on the Wikipedia article here.
This post has been updated several times, and sometimes significantly. If the comments below don’t make sense, that’s probably why.