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.

Negative Origins

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.”

Mainstream Evolution

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.

Modern Definition

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.

29 responses to “The Definition of Jitterbug

  1. Most hotdogs that really are good leave me with a certain respect because I’m caught off guard. I am also left with fear of heartburn and I wonder I’ll regret eating it.

  2. Hey Bobby,

    I’ve mentioned this before, but you have GOT to see the documentary “Call of the Jitterbug.” The opening sequence is a bunch of interview cuts of classic dancers (Norma, Frankie, Sandra Gibson, Mama Lu Parks, etc) answering the question, “What is the difference between Lindy Hop and Jitterbug?”

    Also, the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie had a deleted “Jitterbug” scene and I think some stage versions may have had it also. I have read on the interwebs that one of the reasons they cut the scene was they thought the rise of the slang term would date the movie. I have a vague memory of Frankie or someone at least mentioning the Wizard of Oz – which shows awareness of it to me. I think Frankie & his contemporaries called what they did Lindy Hop, and when the term Jitterbug arose they had to reconcile what it was in relation to their own lingo. Some say the dancing in the opening credits of the movie Mulholland Drive (featuring several well-known lindy hoppers) is a Wizard of Oz reference.

    Lastly, when I read you Webster definition I noticed the mention and your reference back to the word “balance.” In Quadrilles and other Vintage Dancing, “balancing” with your partner involves moving toward and away from your partner in rhythm, usually while holding hands. I don’t know all the official details, but it is a dance term. I am betting that is what Webster is meaning in that definition. I have learned several different vintage dance choreographies with a group here in Cincinnati and we frequently “balance.”

    • Some of the stage versions do have it – I was Dorothy in one of these stage versions and did some horrible jitterbugging myself in the 8th grade.

      My grandmother always referred to swing dancing as jitterbugging and used it as an umbrella term for all the dances she did to swing music – lindy, charleston, etc. It was easier to tell a story that way, without having to get too specific.

    • Hey Joel,

      Thanks for reading– always glad to hear from you. Yes, I do need to see Call of the Jitterbug. And the balance thing makes much more sense in that context. Hmmmm…

  3. I have a piece of anecdotal (and probably useless) information that may or may not interest you.

    A few years ago I was practicing solo 1920s Charleston in my grandmother’s kitchen, and my grandmother said, “Oh, so you kids are still doing the jitterbug.” I replied that I was doing the Charleston, and she returned with “no, that’s the jitterbug. Your great-aunt Stella used to dance that all the time.”

    My grandmother was around 80 at the time, so she may have just been confused. But, I thought you might be interested in this instance of someone old using “jitterbug” to describe what we now call Charleston, which might give more weight to your assertion that the term was used prior to 1938 (since clearly 1920s Charleston was being danced before 1938).

    Caveats: my grandmother was born in the 1920s, so she couldn’t have been doing much dancing, “jitterbug” or otherwise, within that decade. Also, she was white and lived in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, so she shouldn’t be considered an authority on what terminology was in use in Harlem at any given point in time.

  4. Interesting etymology- I’ll have to hunt down that clip that Joel mentioned!

    Thanks also, for the (unintentional?) Eddie Izzard nod: “America needs the old version of awesome, because you’re the only ones going into space. You’ve got a bit of cash and you go up there, and you need ‘awesome’ because you’re going to be going to the next sun to us. And your President’s going to be going (American voice) “Can you tell me, astronaut, can you tell me what it’s like?” “It’s awesome, sir.” “What, like a hot dog?” “Like a hundred billion hot dogs, sir.”

    • I love Eddie Izzard, but totally missed the subconcious Eddie reference I made. There you go. Carp. I’ve got to watch my material.

  5. Weinberger’s Delicatessen, 608 Main Street, Grape Vine TX. Tell them Stryder sent you. Get the Chicago Dog (or damn near anything else on that menu). It is, truly, Awesome.

  6. I recently listened to a BBC produced program “Jazz Junctions” that talked about the history of swing in one program and it relates the 1935 Palomar ballroom story as well. There are few details in their story that make it seem a bit more credible. I’ll just cut and paste from the episode description:

    “Last broadcast on Wed, 20 Oct 2010, 22:00 on BBC Radio 2.

    Guy Barker continues to explore the history of jazz, focusing on the turning points and pivotal events that have shaped the genre, and discovering some great stories and larger-than-life characters along the way.

    In its 100-year history, jazz has seen many changes and developments but, unlike other genres, jazz’s direction has frequently changed due to a specific event: a momentary decision, an invention, one performance, or one person’s idea. Each episode focuses on what jazz was like directly before this junction, the junction itself, and how things subsequently changed.

    Part three, Swing! Swing! Swing! looks at Benny Goodman, the ‘King of Swing’. In early 1935, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra were starting to attract attention with weekly appearances on the Let’s Dance radio show, broadcast from New York. For most of the show, the band mainly played the unexciting sweet arrangements popular at the time, which failed to excite the East Coast audience. Although they weren’t aware of it, the band had developed a following on the West Coast where listeners, three hours behind, were regularly treated to an extra hour of music, featuring hot jazz arrangements by the likes of Fletcher Henderson.

    In July 1935, the band set out on a coast-to-coast tour, often receiving an indifferent reception. By August, Goodman found himself on the West coast and was ready to throw in the towel. Then, on 21 August 1935, everything changed. Amidst a lukewarm reception at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, in a do-or-die move, Benny Goodman decided to bring out some of Fletcher Henderson’s hot arrangements into the otherwise fairly standard and unexciting set. Unbeknownst to him, this was the music the West Coast audience had been waiting for, the music they’d heard in the final hour of the Let’s Dance shows. They went crazy and within days Goodman had become a national star. The Swing era had begun!

    Guy Barker looks at this momentous junction in jazz, the effect it had on the jazz world, featuring new interviews with Frank Foster, George Avakian, Ted Gioia, Ed Shaughnessy, Buddy DeFranco, Gary Giddins, Scott Yanow and Loren Schoenberg; and archive from Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw, Teddy Wilson and John Hammond.

    the “let’s go out swinging” quote is referenced in the story and is largely thought to be true. It’s a cool story for sure.

  7. When I heard Sugar Sullivan speak at AVS in 2007, I remember her mentioning that her daughter, Sheryl Sullivan, placed second at the Harvest Moon Ball in 1972, when the dance division was called “Jitterbug/Jive” instead of Lindy Hop.

  8. I guess about Goodman’s concert at the Palomar ballroom exist a lot of different stories.

    In Ken Burn’s documentary “Jazz” the story is discribed like that: The band started the concert with “dance music” (waltzes and so on), they played stock arrangements they bought during the tour and the audience was bored. Before the second set somebody in the band (Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa?) said something like: If we gonna go down then let’s go down doing the kind of music we like to play. So they started the second set with King Porter Stomp and the crowd went crazy..

  9. Google Books is a wonderful reference.

    For instance, this 1938 Life Magazine article referencing “swing dancing”

    There are a few other references prior to 1940. (Apparently Adolf Hitler used a phrase that can be translated as “swing dancing” in his 1939 essay “Lunacy Becomes Us”.)

    Here’s a nice reference to “a chorus of colored strutters” from Billboard, 1942.

    More from Billboard 1942

    The 1947 Encyclopedia Brittanica

    School & Society from the Society for the Advancement of Education, 1947

    Some book/screenplay by the same guy who wrote Old Yeller

  10. I have two things that might be of interest. First, here’s a link to a site describing the origin of the term “jitterbug.” According to this site, the term was first used in 1914, way earlier than Websters claims.

    Also, I’m positive I’ve read somewhere (but I can’t recall where) that the term became popular sometime in the late 1930’s after a reporter used the term as an intended put down. Lindy Hop was invented and popularized by African Americans, but by the 1930’s white teenagers were adopting the dance as well. You can imagine that their parents were not pleased. (This was not unlike how rock and roll became popular in the 1950’s after white people adopted as their own the music that was popular among African Americans in the South.) A white reporter covering a dance event described the dancers as jitterbuggers, intending to insult them by comparing them to alcoholics suffering from the dt’s. The white teenagers thought this was funny and adopted the term as their own to descibe themselves. The rest is history. I can’t promise this is true, but I have seen this.

  11. Jitterbug: Cab Calloway did not invent the slang he publicized, though as a connection between the Harlem hipsters and the rest of the public he would often appear to be the source. He made a record called “Learn to Be A Jitter Bug” in the early 30s (Rob Bamberger played it on one of his programs) which would seem to be an early publication of the term. On the record he says to start by consuming a lot of “jitter sauce” (alcohol) and go on from there. Given that “the jitters” was already an established word, the source in referring to drunkenness seems likely.

    Swing: As a verb, was common in the 1920s. As a noun, George T. Simon wrote that the BBC in the 30s thought “hot music” or “hot jazz” too racy to use on the air, so they coined the term “swing music” for use in broadcasting. Benny Goodman (or possibly John Hammond) heard this and thought it a good term to borrow for the 4/4 music they were playing. Most of BG’s early hits were Fletcher Henderson arrangements, some of which Henderson had recorded as early as 1931–so they were only “new” to the public who had never heard them before.

    Swing as a dance: The use of the term “Swing Dancing” seems to date from the revival of the style in recent times–perhaps no farther back than the 1980s. I have been listening to this kind of music since the 1960s, but I never heard of swing dancing as a name for what my mother (born 1929) calls “jitterbugging” until 1986.

  12. Wow there is so much great research in the post and comments that I need to double back to for reading and watching!

    You mentioned ‘Arthur Murray’s East Coast Swing’ in the post. When I was an undergrad at Ohio State I checked some books in the dance library there trying to turn up anything about swing dance. I came across a 1960s or 70s book of ballroom dance curricula, and if I recall correctly it used the term ‘Lindy Hop’ for a 6 count swing dance. So the blurring of terms may have gone both ways. I’ll have to go back and see if I can find the book again. I think the ballroom studios may have been willing to use any term that would catch the public’s attention, just like Lindy Hop is used a bit generously today on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ or an awful program called ‘Dance Your Ass Off’:

    There’s also a pattern called ‘Lindy’ in modern dance that’s just rock step triple step, rock step triple step and it has particular arms to it but I can’t find an example on youtube.

  13. Baltimore Sun has 153 occurrences of “jitterbug” between June 13, 1938 and 1/1/1940. Must have been a term that took off in that period. Chicago Defender 5/21/1938, LA Times 4/9/1938.

  14. Thank you so much for looking into this! I have wondered what exactly the jitterbug is, and questioned my poor grandfather about it multiple times. His explanation was that jitterbug=lindy hop, but that seemed too simple an answer. So thank you for doing the leg-work for me here, as every time I went looking for an answer I got multiple convoluted ones.

  15. In the early 1960’s, a couple taught ballroom dance to middle school-age children in our local high school cafeteria. They taught dances they called “double Lindy” and “triple Lindy.” The latter was what we know today as 6-count. The former, done to faster music, substituted a step-hold for the triples. When I came home and showed my mother what I’d learned, she said, “Oh, that’s the jitterbug.” Oh, and Nathan’s hot dogs are the best. With tons of sauerkraut. That makes them health food.

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