Read an Excerpt
A Browser's Dictionary of Interjections
By Mark Dunn
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Mark Dunn and Sergio Aragonés
All rights reserved.
- A -
aaayy (with variant spellings)
The multipurpose catchword of the Fonz (aka Arthur Fonzarelli), the leather-clad biker with a heart of gold (and possibly a little chrome) played by Henry Winkler on the 1970s television sitcom Happy Days. The word served as both greeting and simple statement of rough-around-the-edges, slick-haired peacock pride. It was usually accompanied by a double thumbs-up gesture of wiseass self-confidence.
Used by magicians to conjure, or by men of mystery from times past to ward off misfortune, abracadabra is one of a handful of interjections that literally have no meaning. Whereas most interjections derive from previously established nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so forth, this cabalistic word materialized — totally unaffiliated — some time before the second century, making its first appearance in a poem by Quintus Severus Sammonicus. Its letters were often written on parchment in the form of an inverted pyramid. The parchment would be suspended from the neck by a linen thread, and was supposedly used to cure toothaches and other ailments.
Abracadabra has a few close interjectional cousins. Magicians of yesteryear preferred to use the incantational word jingo when producing rabbits and bouquets by sleight of hand. The word, which is euphemistic for Jesus, is still heard, especially in films set in English pubs and drawing rooms, in the phrase by jingo (see here). Magicians of today like to use the imperative presto chango. I can think of a few decidedly nonmagical uses of this interjection. For example:
Madge: What a tear little Bobby was on today. Your little grandson was a whirling dervish of naughty all afternoon.
Madge's Mom: Oh my goodness! Whatever did you do?
Madge: I told him Jesus and Santa had been watching him all afternoon and were now sitting in Dunkin Donuts discussing his fate. Well, presto chango, Mother, you never saw such a good little boy after that!
Although one is more likely to hear the interjection voilá spoken by a nonmagician, this word, which is used to express success, accomplishment, or satisfaction, and especially that which comes accompanied by an element of surprise, is also wholly conjurable (from the French: see there!).
Used by a television or film director to signal the commencement of a scene, action continues until the director shouts, "Cut!" "Action!" is usually preceded by "Speed!" the soundman's cue to the director that the speeds of the sound recorder and the camera are synchronized.
Also heard upon the set, although not formally interjectional, is the phrase, "That's a wrap," which means either that work in this locale has been completed or that the folded sandwiches the caterer is passing out are not quesadillas.
This exclamation, which may indicate delight, surprise, pain, complaint, contempt, pity, relief, or regret (or some combination of the above), is one of twenty-three two-letter interjections acceptable for play in the game of Scrabble. Since, according to the Scrabble folks, these interjections constitute a healthy fraction of the 109 allowable two-letter words, I thought they merited at least a passing mention here.
Sixteen of these words should be familiar to most of us: ah, aw, eh, er, ha, hi, ho, lo, my, oh, oi, ow, sh, ta, um, and yo. Three others represent variant spellings for more familiarly spelled interjections: ay (for aye), fy (for fie), ur (for er). Io, new to me, expresses joy or triumph; ou is a Scottish interjection expressing concession; and st is synonymous with sh. Last, and, yes, probably least, is the fright-inducing bo, which perhaps emanates from ghosts too proud or vocally challenged to simply say boo.
Related somewhat to eureka! (see here), this exclamation is often heard at that moment when the bell rings, the lightbulb clicks on, when one finally, whether with delight or rue, comes to understand something that has heretofore remained elusive. Word wunderman William Safire in his New York Times column of February 17, 1997, called aha "one of the great, unappreciated, and deliciously nuanced words in the English language."
Aha has been with us for several centuries; Chaucer used it way back in the 1300s in The Canterbury Tales. In Yinglish (the marriage of English and Yiddish), aha expresses a wide range of emotions, from subtle understanding to triumphant exultation.
Aha was also the name given to a new genus of wasp discovered by a scientific researcher named Arnold Menke. It isn't hard to guess the first word out of his mouth at that eurekaic moment.
Used to attract attention, express doubt, or offer mild admonishment, ahem may be employed to comical effect, especially when exaggerated. It is most useful in situations in which the addressee is on the verge of committing an error of oversight or a minor social gaffe. It is imitative of clearing the throat and in some cases may be exactly that, making it the only interjection capable of producing a physical by-product: phlegm.
Virtually identical to ahem in the senses stated above is the word hem, which carries the supplemental meaning of pausing or hesitating in speech. It is most frequently used in the noninterjectional phrase hem and haw, meaning "to falter" or "to deliberately avoid giving a direct answer."
Captain Hook: Stop all the hemming and hawing, maties, who stole me donuts?
First Mate: Ahem, they're still down there around your peg leg, Cap'n.
ai-ai-ai (also ai-yi-yi)
Found in both Spanish and Yiddish, this interjection expresses a number of emotions that range from stopped-dead-in-one's-tracks stupefaction to anguished regret and dismay. Consider the following fantasy 1950s TV Guide listing:
9:00    I LOVE LUCY — Comedy
Lucy and Rabbi Waxman decide to run away together while Ricky is performing at his club. Upon learning that their spouses are on their way to Reno, Ricky and Golda Waxman commiserate with a resounding "ai-yi-yi." (Film)
Edward G. Robinson
Though the word connotes the sudden magical appearance of something wondrously welcome, its etymology is somewhat fuzzy. Alakazam may have derived from a cakewalk song written in 1902 by Abe Holtzmann called "Alagazam." By the time Nat King Cole began singing "Flash! Bam! Alakazam!" in his song "Orange Colored Sky," most Americans had become fairly familiar with this odd, foreign-sounding interjection, which was also appropriated by the Japanese in their 1961 cartoon feature Alakazam the Great (dubbed in English by Frankie Avalon, Jonathan Winters, et al.), about the adventures of a mischievous magical monkey. Later Alakazam would become the name of Pokémon character number 65, a brilliant "psychic" whose IQ was said to be 5,000.
Is there any difference between the still-current alas and the now-antiquated alack? Not much. Both express sorrow and regret. Together in the phrase alas and alack, they double the displeasure. Alack comes from alackaday (alack the day). Alas dates all the way back to the thirteenth century and derives from the French ah las ("oh weary [me]!"). It is anybody's guess as to why one of the two kept its currency and the other fell largely by the wayside. But such is the fate of many interjections, especially those that compete upon the crowded field of "woe."
This handy utilitarian is most often heard during the lifting of a heavy object, and usually when such lifting requires the coordinated efforts of two or more hoisters. It is less often heard as a general shout of exhortation or encouragement.
The word was probably coined by American doughboys sent "over there" to fight the kaiser's troops in World War I, since the alley is almost too close for coincidence to the French allez ("you go"). Indeed, in the 1920s allez oop was commonly heard among hoisters and the hoisting cheerleaders of that day.
Alley Oop was the name given to a popular caveman comic-strip character. The word also found its way to the basketball court, and today it refers to a high pass made to a player positioned near the basket, who takes the ball out of the air and promptly stuffs it right through the net. On the gridiron back in the late 1950s, alley-oop was the name given to a lob pass thrown over the heads of defense players from San Francisco 49ers quarterback Y. A. Tittle to former hoops player R. C. Owens.
The versatile alley-oop is also a good substitute for upsy daisy (see here) should one find the latter to be just a little too precious.
all right already
A Yinglish (Yiddish/English) concoction meaning, among other things, "I've heard enough!" or "I give up — you win — stop the nagging, for God's sake, I can't even hear myself think!" or, well, something in that ballpark. First heard in the Bronx, this interjection has been in use since the late nineteenth century but did not become really popular until after World War II.
Called the "world's loveliest greeting or farewell," aloha is Hawaiian for both. The word also means love, sweet and simple. Hawaii's nickname is the Aloha State. Its unofficial anthem and traditional farewell song is "Aloha 'Oe" ("Farewell to Thee"), written by Queen Liliuokalani.
Aloha was recorded in English as far back as 1820, when it turned up in a traveler's report. Hawaii Five-O's Detective Steve McGarrett of the Hawaii State Police was fond of the phrase, "Aloha, suckers!" If memory serves, it was generally reserved for the bad guys and not for law-abiding citizens and fellow officers.
Shared by Christians, Jews, and Muslims throughout the world, this interjection, which generally occurs at the end of a prayer, creed, or other formal statement, expresses solemn agreement or ratification. According to the Talmud, the word is to be enunciated with power and conviction, thus helping to open the doors of paradise.
Amen has a secular application as well; it may be used for simple, informal concurrence, and here may carry nearly as much power and conviction as its religious counterpart.
DMV Clerk #1: I wouldn't issue a driver's license to a chimpanzee, I don't care how smart he is.
DMV Clerk #2: Amen, brother!
DMV Clerk #1: So, uh, who wants to pull him out of line?
From amen comes the "Amen Corner," which can be either a corner of a church reserved for those who lead congregational responses, or the front row when it is set aside for the most penitent, pious, or spirited in the congregation. More literally it is the name given to the corner at the end of Paternoster Row in London where the monks, in recitative procession to St. Paul's Cathedral on Corpus Christi Day, would arrive at the "Amen" in the Lord's Prayer. (Also found along this route are Ave-Maria and Creed Lanes.) My favorite use of "Amen Corner" is in reference to the "smoke-filled room" of New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel in which powerful politicians in eras past gathered to strut, anoint, and coronate, but just as often to sit and nod and grunt their cigar-rasped "amens."
This interjection, which adds enthusiastic emphasis to what someone else has just said, was once very common among German and Italian Americans. In fact, the German version und wie! and the Italian e come! are almost perfect translations. Our version, by the way, dates back to the mid-1920s. It seems right at home with those "So's your old man!" urban urchins with their knickers and their bad haircuts.
Legend has it that this interjection, meaning "better than OK," "great," or "near perfect," was first uttered by American astronaut Alan Shepard in response to an inquiry into how his suborbital space flight was going. In reality, what Shepard probably said was a simple, "OK" (see here). As the story now goes, NASA's public relations officer, John A. "Shorty" Powers, heard it wrong. And liked very much this new word he misheard. In fact, Powers liked it so much that he used it several times in interviews with the press. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, has said that he and his astronaut colleagues never used A-OK. Engineers, maybe. Not astronauts. And let's not forget U.S. presidents. In June 1986, President Ronald Reagan, concluding a day of medical tests at a naval hospital, pronounced himself, "A-OK."
In a weird historical coincidence, that little a — which was probably never intentionally attached to OK by anyone in a flight suit — also played an important role in the first sentence spoken on the surface of the moon. What Armstrong intended to say was, "That's one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind." The a somehow got dropped. Shorty could have put it in for him.
arruugah! (or arruuugaaahh)
The official U.S. Marine Corps cheer of camaraderie. Marine Corps public relations officials are in conflict over the correct spelling; anyone familiar with the cheer and its many applications, and especially those approving of the vocal brawn behind it, won't quibble over a silly old spelling.
This 1980/1990s commentarial popular among teenagers (especially with addresses within or near the 90210 zip code) was immortalized in the film Clueless. It was not, at the time, new to American English, having been introduced a good seventy-five years earlier. Used ironically to express disbelief, often with a sting (a shortened version of "as if it were true"), this expression was first recorded as far back as 1905. Either it entered a long dormant period, or it disappeared altogether and was reborn in the mall culture of sunny southern California, where it was to remain quite confined. Yeah. As if!
This interjection has been around since the early twentieth century. As an enthusiastic expression of encouragement or approval it was probably derived from the approbative "That's the boy." Attaboy may be directed to boy, man, male animal, and not infrequently is addressed to all of God's other, equally deserving creatures, even those of the female gender, although many prefer to use attagirl instead. (However, we must be careful not to be too generous with our "attas" lest we wind up with the likes of attashortstop, attarevivalistpreacher, attaU.S. Olympichockeyteam. ...)
This military command directs a soldier to assume an erect posture, with eyes to the front, arms to the sides, and heels together. The word is sometimes pronounced ten-HUT. After standing at attention for a long time, most soldiers will be all too happy to obey a different command, especially if it's at ease.
Sometimes it's hard to say good-bye, and sometimes it isn't hard at all — especially when you can have a little fun at the expense of the French. In 1899 two British engineering experts went to Egypt to survey the Nile River and, so the story goes, bid adieu with a jocular au reservoir. This farewell remained popular for some time thereafter. Thirty-some-odd years later the familiar valediction was lampooned again with the less-popular olive oil. Less popular by my estimate because a) it doesn't sound too much like au revoir to me, and b) how does one keep from confusing this parody of a Gallic good-bye with the name of Popeye's comically asthenic girlfriend?
This word may be used to express disappointment or protest, or to show commiseration, sentimentality, or warm and fuzzy Oprah-studio-audience-like approval. It is a favorite expression of Walt Disney's quasi-doltish character Goofy.
- B -
This interjection was used in the 1910s and 1920s to call for restraint. Perhaps the phrase was grandpappy to our chill or chill out, and not too distantly related to the more staid steady. The probable concrete reference here is to the backpedaling of a bicycle, an activity which, depending upon whether your cycle is equipped with caliper or coaster brakes, either puts you in neutral or brings forward movement to a squealing halt.
Can you have the bing without the boom? Yes, according to Francis Ford Coppola. In The Godfather Sonny (James Caan) tells Michael (Al Pacino): "Whataya think this is, the Army, where you shoot 'em a mile away? You gotta get up close like this ... badaBING! You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit."
Excerpted from Zounds! by Mark Dunn. Copyright © 2005 Mark Dunn and Sergio Aragonés. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.