• ballyhoo •
Pronunciation: bæ-li-hu • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. (Carnival slang) Barker's 'barking', hence bombastic nonsense, noisy fuss. 2. Sensational hype, clamorous advertising. 3. (Obsolete) A worn-out or run-down ship, a slovenly kept ship.
Notes: Today's word may be used as a verb, as 'to ballyhoo one's own abilities'. This form of today's word makes ballyhooer, ballyhooing, even ballyhooist, possible.
In Play: If you can imagine a carnival barker's performance, you understand the current meaning of this word: "Every US president likes to ballyhoo military victories during his administration." The sense of advertising carried over to the verb: "The iPhone was perhaps the most ballyhooed product ever manufactured."
Word History: The spelling of ballyhoo has been used for four different words: (1) "bombastic nonsense, sensational hype", (2) a spelling for balao, a genus of fish, (3) a part of the name ballyhoo bird, and (4) ballyhoo, a type of schooner. This last ballyhoo (4) clearly was a mispronunciation of ballahou from Spanish balahú, a type of schooner. How its meaning became pejorative remains foggy, however. My guess is that the carnival community probably heard this word from sailors, thought it funny, and attached it to a barker's spiel. From there the meaning's journey is clear. There may be a tie between ballyhoo and the creature called a ballyhoo bird. According to a July 1880 article in Harper's, the bird had four wings and two heads and could whistle through one bill while singing through the other. Anyone who has ever been on a snipe hunt will know what hunting ballyhoo birds was like. (Without any ballyhoo, we should all now thank Larry Brady for thinking of us when he recommended this funny if mysterious Good Word.)