Linguist, lexicographer, writer, editor, broadcaster

Jitterbug thug and dance

My latest fortnightly column, written for an audience of English learners, has been published in the Malaysia Star.

When a circuit judge in Florida was reported to have told a man who took up the habit of crack cocaine at age 47 that he would be joining the “jitterbugs”, she didn’t mean he’d be on the dance floor swinging and jerking to the sounds of Tommy Dorsey. She meant he would be joining the juvenile delinquents and the thugs on the street.

Slang language is filled with telescoping synonyms for otherwise normal everyday words, but it also has many identically spelled words with very different meanings. Sometimes they come from the same origins. Sometimes they arise separately, live different lives, and pass for different kinds of currency in completely different social groups. The dance jitterbug and the thug jitterbug are good examples.

Just what is a jitterbug? It’s all of these: a jittery person, a person who dances the jitterbug, a foolish or ignorant young person, or a juvenile delinquent.

The verb jitterbug has a few more meanings: to dance the jitterbug, to hop about rapidly or fool around, to saunter or swagger, or to engage in gang fighting.

Who can say which came first? Did the different jitterbugs arrive in American English together, like contestants at a dance marathon trying to see which one could last the longest?

Since slang is self-reinforcing, meaning that it tends to feed on itself, breed its own descendants, and abandon its own offspring when necessary, we can claim with some confidence that all the jitterbugs worked together. There are a few other reasons, too.

For one, it’s a fun, funny word, just the kind that catches the fancy, engages the ear. Those of the kinds of words that travel well, and words that travel well tend to fork into other meanings.

For two, all the recorded evidence shows that many of the different jitterbug meanings appeared at about the same time.

For three, there’s also a lot of overlap in the meanings. Most are youth-oriented. There’s also a rebel component: gang fighting, sauntering, swagger, delinquency, foolishness, and ignorance, are all behaviours outside of the norm, and perhaps in a “these kids today!” way, we can include the jitterbug dance and its dancers, which were mocked even when the fad was in its heyday.

Famed bandleader Artie Shaw is said to have suggested in 1939 of the dance faddists that, in one newspaper columnist’s version, “if you scratched the head of a jitterbug you’ll find the brain of a moron”.

All of these factors indicate there’s a pretty good chance all the different kinds of jitterbug spring from the same source. But what source was that?

A 1934 song by Cab Calloway and others, called ‘Jitter Bug’, seems to have launched the word into American English, although Calloway probably did not invent the word:

If you’d like to be a jitter bug,
First thing you must do is get a jug,
Put whiskey, wine and gin within,
And shake it all up and then begin.
Grab a cup and start to toss,
You’re now drinking jitter sauce!
Don’t you worry, you just mug,
And then you’ll be a jitter bug!

Though it is less well known than the kicking-it-up-at-the-heels jitterbug, the delinquent jitterbug as meant by the Florida judge is alive and well in modern American slang. Hip-hop outfit The Coup, in a cut called ‘The Liberation of Lonzo Williams’ off the 1999 Kill My Landlord album, brought the divergent meanings back together: “He was a jitterbug thug, at the dance, cuttin’ a rug.”

author avatar
Grant Barrett