Feelin' Groovy

Language and how we use it.
Feb. 11 1999 3:30 AM

Feelin' Groovy

Can anybody say it with a straight face?

19000_19170_frenkel_oldgroovylead

Have you ever set the dials in your head to register with maximum sensitivity any new encounter with a particular word or phrase? I put the dials on high alert a few weeks ago for groovy, spurred by a spate of printed sightings. People magazine had just referred to Winona Ryder in passing as "the groovy gamine." The Washington Post at about the same time complimented the "groovy appearance" of the iMac computer. The Chicago Tribune published a list of Web sites for kids that it had found to be "full of groovy games." A commentary in the London Independent about Britain's fuddy-duddy Conservative Party and its forlorn attempts at image enhancement observed, "Here they are, doing their best to be a little bit groovy, a little bit New Labour, and what do we do? We snigger."

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Meanwhile, a communication from the editor of Slate brought my attention not so much to sightings as to hearings. He wrote:

D----S----, a man not given to air quotes, just told me it was "groovy" that I would call him back later about something. Young R----, a summer intern, used the word constantly but with a smirk. ... I've heard it used by grown-ups, without apparent irony, within the past hour. I guess it's gone the route of "cool"--revived as quaint and retro by young 'uns and gradually de-ironized. I assume the term originated as a '40s or '50s hip allusion to the LP record. But maybe not.

Well, close. Briefly, the word dates back to jazz circles in the 1930s and ultimately derives from the phrase "in the groove," meaning "performing or doing exceptionally well." What the "groove" in that phrase originally referred to is hard to establish definitively, because several meanings current in the 1930s all permit plausible theories. Many dictionaries do link the groove of in the groove to the groove of a record. But groove could also refer to the path between a pitcher and the strike zone (and had done so since the turn of the century); a pitcher who was throwing "in the groove" was throwing very well. Groove also had a vulgar sexual connotation, which could likewise give in the groove the connotation of high performance and pleasure. And groove could simply mean a "style," a sense associated with the parallel between being in a groove and being in a rut. (In the 19th century, groovy actually meant "to be in a rut" or to be "of settled habits" or "conventional"; the first Oxford English Dictionary citation for this kind of grooviness is dated 1867.) In any event, by the 1940s groovy had expanded beyond the jazz world and--a harbinger of what would happen in the 1960s and '70s--was being used by nongroovy adults in a typically pathetic attempt to seem hip. Here's a Buick ad, cited by Thomas Dalzell, a lexicographer of slang, in his terrific book Flappers 2 Rappers: "Stand off and beam at Buick's years-ahead style--there's something not only favored by the old folks, but termed by the younger idea, definitely groovy!" The ad appeared in Newsweek in 1946.

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After the 1940s, groovy went dormant for a time; reference books begin to refer to it as "archaic" or "obsolete." Then came its re-emergence in Beat and hippie patois, and its ascension into totemic status, as the primary pop-cultural word that future generations would associate with the youth culture of the 1960s. (During the 1996 presidential campaign, David Letterman's "Top 10 ways Bob Dole is trying to appear younger" included the following at the No. 9 spot: "Peppers his speeches with words such as groovy and outasight.") A nuance that the future may not always appreciate, though, is how ironic or playfully self-conscious its usage usually was. I suspect that the word has long existed in a netherworld between interjectional utility and outright put-on. Perhaps an ingenuous minority used it innocently in its hippie heyday; but most often one heard it uttered with a bit of wonderment, as if the speaker couldn't believe that he or she was really using the word.

Groovy continues to thrive, with the same sort of ambivalence attached to it. The experts disagree only about the full extent of its range. Anne H. Soukhanov, who oversaw the most recent (third) edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and is now the North American editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary, recalls coming across the word these days mostly in speech, "especially in sardonic and sarcastic replies to negative-context statements such as 'Dad, I just wrecked your new car' or 'This to inform you that the IRS has targeted you for a 10 year audit,' where its use as an interjectional reply parallels similar use of standard terms like 'beautiful,' 'terrific,' or 'great.' "

John Morse, the editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionaries, sees groovy less as a bit of exotica and more as a robust adapter to an ever-changing present. "Often," he says, drawing on Merriam-Webster's voluminous citation files, "groovy is used in reference to something from, or reminiscent of, the 1960s (clothing, spiritualism, things that glow in black light), but just as often (actually, more often) the word appears to be used in reference to the contemporary scene. We have examples of trendy addresses in Miami Beach, biker-gal sunglasses, MTV videos, parties where hip-hop music is played, and jazz-rap crossover music all being described as groovy and all without hint of irony." The examples come from such publications as Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Elle, the Village Voice, and The New Yorker. "The word," says Morse, "appears to live on."

It lives on, but its evolution seems to be taking different forms in captivity and in the wild. Such, at any rate, is slang specialist Dalzell's surmise, and the comments by Soukhanov (about the interjectional groovy) and Morse (about groovy in printed citations) illustrate the point. In the wild--that is, in the more freewheeling and inflected realm of spoken language--groovy thrives in a largely ironic state; the use of the word requires a context of wavelength synchrony between speaker and listener. In captivity--that is, in the more restrained and stylized realm of written language--examples of the nonironic groovy tend to predominate heavily.

Groovy's staying power--it has maintained its meaning and its presence for more than six decades--points up the robustness, and even the relative antiquity, of much of what seems like linguistic ephemera. Out of sight, meaning "incredibly wonderful" or "extraordinary," is as current as ever; it goes back not to the '60s but to the '40s--the 1840s. Cool has experienced a change of intonation in the 1990s, becoming nearly bisyllabic, but it has been widely used over diverse demographic terrain for most of the 20th century, and it goes back as a term of admiration ("That's right [i.e., very] cool") to the first half of the 19th century. Duh, an interjection indicating stupidity or obviousness, emerged from 1940s animated cartoons, but its period of greatest efflorescence is probably occurring right now. It enjoys life not only as an interjection but also as a noun ("The movie's real duh of a raison d'être"--VillageVoice) and an adjective ("That's so duh you've got to smile"--Los Angeles Times). Bummer, one 1960s word that really did get its start in the '60s drug culture, is also proving its hardiness, a testament both to the term's euphony and to the ubiquity of bummers in the world at large.

Cat, dig, and hipster are enjoying a resurgence. So are bitchin' and stoked. Every generation insists on having its own new words for the most aggressively up-to-date aspects of life. (Well, duh.) But it's also true, as never before, that the archives of sound and image constitute a continuous retro loop that people can--and will--draw on. The situation is oddly appropriate: The idea of retro in a rut restores grooviness to its original meaning.

Cullen Murphy is managing editor of the Atlantic Monthly and also writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.

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