Ohhhhh BAD KATE.
I forgot to check the Word Detective! This is what he says:
[Q] At a recent party, I had occasion to use the phrase "Heebee Jeebees" to refer to something that gave me a "creepy" feeling. I was flummoxed when half the crowd was nonplussed! Actually, I was even more surprised when someone suggested that she thought the phrase was not in good taste because it was anti-Semitic! I am doubtful, but I'm PC enough to worry. -- Chris Kuhn, via the Internet.
[A] I, too, am surprised that half the folks at that party didn't know what "heebie-jeebies" (the usual spelling) are. What are they teaching in school these days, anyway? Nothing useful, apparently. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, the "heebie-jeebies" are "a feeling of discomfort, apprehension, or depression; the 'jitters'; delirium tremens; also, formerly, a type of dance." Just like the "wim-wams," I'd say, except the dancing part.
As to your worries about "heebie-jeebies" possibly being an anti-Semitic slur, the answer is a somewhat qualified "no." The phrase "heebie-jeebies" was invented by Billy De Beck, a famous American comic strip artist of the 1920's, in his popular "Barney Google" strip in 1923. De Beck, by the way, also invented "hotsy-totsy" (a term of approval) and the wonderful "horsefeathers" (meaning "utter nonsense") in his strip. "Heebie-jeebies" must have caught the popular imagination immediately, since the dance of that name appeared a scant three years later, in 1926.
The invention of "heebie-jeebies" by De Beck was, without doubt, innocent of any racial or ethnic animosity. The only possible anti-Semitic interpretation of "heebie-jeebies" comes from its unfortunate resemblance to the slang term "hebe" (a cropping of "Hebrew"), which is indeed an anti-Jewish epithet. Whether you want to risk possible misunderstandings when you use "heebie-jeebies" is up to you, of course, but the truth of its innocent origin is its best defense.
Kate, ashamed in CT
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