Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

‘Jitterbug’ is Giving me the Jitters

Good Word subscriber Liza Hodskins shared our workup of jitterbug with her friend Debra Sternberg, whose response was: “Fuuuun! Unfortunately, Dr. Goodword is wrong. Back in 1920s-30s in Harlem, jittersauce [or jitter juice—DG] was slang for booze. Someone who drank too much and got the DTs [delirium tremens, a form of the jitters—DG]. When the white kids from downtown went uptown to dance at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, they were jerkier than the black kids, who started calling them jitterbugs as a pejorative. Not recognizing that, the white kids said, Cool, I’m a jitterbug!! At least that’s the story we’ve always heard.”

It has been written up, too, and can be found at the Lindy Circle website (the Jitterbug is a variation on the Lindy Hop). Right or wrong, it is a better story with more depth and cogent detail than our story. We have found several other references to the same story on the Web but all may have originated from the same reliable or unreliable source. We do know that Cab Calloway put out a highly popular album called Jitterbug which probably explains the popularity of the word among the general public.

If anyone reading this has a published document from that era or a piece of serious research that could serve as authoritative confirmation, please share it with me.

This story makes a lot of sense and reveals a lot about the relation of white Americans to a music that originated with black Americans. There is no mention of the term being used pejoratively with racial overtones but according to Ken Burns’s “History of Jazz”, jazz (or jass as it was spelled back then) was socially unacceptable until it was cleaned up and offered by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.

Leave a Reply