Skimming social media recently, I came across posts reporting the death of R&B singer Billy “The Kid” Emerson at the age of 97. Though he would later renounce secular music and become a preacher, Emerson had a great run as a singer and songwriter in the 1950s, signing to Sun Records in its heyday. While Emerson never achieved the fame of labelmates like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, some of his songs have endured as rockabilly standards, perhaps most notably “Red Hot.” Emerson wrote and recorded “Red Hot” for Sun in 1955, though his single didn’t crack the charts.
“Red Hot” would become more famous when it was covered in 1957 by another Sun act, Billy Lee Riley & The Little Green Men. From there it entered the repertoire of many rockers, including the Beatles, who can be heard playing “Red Hot” in recordings at Hamburg’s Star Club in 1962.
“Red Hot” features Emerson’s immortal call-and-response refrain:
My gal is red hot
Your gal ain’t doodly-squat
Doodly-squat (meaning ‘nothing/anything at all’ or ‘an insignificant amount’) might seem like a mild topic for Strong Language, but there’s a lot going on under the surface of that frivolous-sounding word. The Oxford English Dictionary surmises that the doodly part comes from doodle as a slang term for ‘excrement,’ and the squat part comes from the use of that word as a verb meaning ‘to void excrement.’ Over time, doodly-squat would get eclipsed by the variant diddly-squat, which the OED calls a “probably euphemistic” alteration. Both doodly-squat and diddly-squat, as well as plain old squat, are prime examples of what linguists have called “vulgar minimizers” or “squatitives” (more on that later).
Though the OED doesn’t say so specifically, doodly-squat grew out of African American usage. Emerson, like many Black performers of the early rock ’n’ roll era, saw his music achieve greater success when covered by his white counterparts (not just “Red Hot” by Billy Lee Riley but also his 1954 composition “When It Rains, It Really Pours,” covered by Elvis). As a tribute of sorts to Emerson, I thought I’d dig into his memorable use of doodly-squat and its origins in the African American language varieties of the South.
Emerson hailed from Tarpon Springs on the Gulf Coast of central Florida, and he’d eventually return there in his years as a preacher. (See Jeff Klinkenberg’s 2014 article for the Tampa Bay Times, “The Second Coming of Billy the Kid.”) As it turns out, central Florida was something of an early breeding ground for doodly-squat, if not its birthplace. The earliest known example of the term, as documented by the OED and Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang, is from Zora Neale Hurston’s debut novel of 1934, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama and moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida when she was young. The protagonists of Jonah’s Gourd Vine, John and Lucy Pearson, share the first names of Hurston’s parents and follow the same path from Notasulga to Eatonville.
In the novel, when John remarries after Lucy’s death, a fellow pastor at his church has this to say about his new wife:
She ain’t never had nothin’—not eben doodly-squat, and when she gits uh chance tuh git holt uh sumpin de ole buzzard is gone on uh rampage.
Hurston would return to the expression in 1935 in her non-fiction book Mules and Men, recounting her trips to Florida (including Eatonville) to collect Black folklore. In one dialogue, she quotes herself saying, “Ah ain’t got doodley squat,” and elsewhere a woman called Mah Honey says, “Dat story you told ain’t doodly squat.” And in Hurston’s most famous work, her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (also set in central Florida), the character Janie says, “Dat long-legged Tea Cake ain’t got doodly squat.”
Even early on, however, doodly-squat wasn’t restricted to the Floridian dialect of Hurston and Emerson’s upbringing. In an article in the June 1935 issue of American Mercury, “Mysteries of the Carnival Language,” Charles Wolverton records doodle-e-squat as part of carny lingo (though he doesn’t specify where he collected the term). Wolverton’s example sentence is “I haven’t got doodle-e-squat,” which he glosses as “broke.”
Back in Florida, the expression was expanding in unusual directions. In the Tampa Tribune of Aug. 17, 1938, there’s a peculiar advertisement for O. Falk’s, a local department store, promoting back-to-college fashions for young women. “You’ll never be the ‘doodley squat’ in O. Falk’s dresses,” the ad reads. “You won’t find ‘doodley squat’ in the dictionary but every knowing gal knows she’d rather die than be one.” One might guess the copywriter for O. Falk’s didn’t know doodly-squat about local collegiate slang.
As doodly-squat caught on, it could also appear as just plain doodl(e)y. The earliest known example, as noted in HDAS, appears in the July 15, 1939 issue of the African American newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier. In the comic strip “Society Sue” by Bobby Thomas (a pen name of Sam Milai), a character says, “Your company ain’t worth doodley now.”
HDAS also collects evidence that doodly–squat was a scatological euphemization. Though we wouldn’t expect to see more vulgar versions in print from the 1930s, later sources provide such variations on the theme as doodly-shit and doodly-crap. And on the more euphemistic side, there’s doodle-do, doodly-do, and doodly-drop. (I also found doodle-dirt in a 1941 column in the Atlanta Constitution: “Preachers who are worth doodle-dirt have something better to do than putting on a Don Quixote act in trying to defend religion.”)
And what of the even more sanitized diddly-squat? While OED and HDAS only date it to 1963, I’ve found examples going back to 1949 in (where else?) Florida. The Miami Herald from Feb. 16 of that year has this in a fishing column: “Standing entirely on our own we didn’t do worth a diddley squat.” (This seems to mean that on a fishing trip to the Florida Keys, the author and his colleague didn’t catch much of anything.) HDAS treats diddly-squat, as well as plain diddly, as a euphemism for diddly-shit. This is supported by an article in the May 1964 issue of American Speech (“Some Problems in the Study of Campus Slang” by Lawrence Poston): “A related change is the discreet abbreviation of possibly offensive words and phrases; bull– and diddly-shit become bull and diddly.”
When Emerson’s “Red Hot” and its various cover versions brought doodly-squat to the attention of the record-buying public, the scatological origins of both doodly and squat were likely far from obvious to most people. The historical connection to excrement was further obscured with the move to diddly-squat and standalone diddly, since diddly has its own history as a playful or nonsensical word and may evoke other minimizing terms like piddly or tiddly.
Consider the stage name of another ’50s rocker: Ellas McDaniel, aka Bo Diddley. While music scholars often link the name to the West African-derived single-string instrument known as the diddley bow, that might not have been why Ellas got that nickname growing up, after moving from McComb, Mississippi to Chicago. In one interview, he said, “I had never heard the name until the kids started calling me this. And I thought they were being funny. I thought it was something nasty, you know, and I still don’t know because the name is not in the dictionary.” (His adoptive mother Gussie McDaniel evidently knew a “Bo Diddley” back in McComb, and the name “Beau Diddely” also appears in a short story by none other than Zora Neale Hurston. She wrote the story, “Black Death,” as early as 1924, but it was never published in her lifetime.)
Whatever “nasty” connotations there might have been around diddl(e)y were largely forgotten by 1989, when Bo Diddley starred in a classic Nike commercial with the multitalented Bo Jackson. The younger Bo, clad in cross-training Nikes, knows baseball, football, and many other athletic pursuits. But he can’t play the guitar, leading the elder Bo to say, “Bo, you don’t know diddly/Diddley.”
Doodly-squat and diddly-squat can, of course, be shortened in the other direction to squat. In an unpublished presentation from 1995, the linguists Haj Ross and Paul Postal considered the broader category of taboo terms that can be used to express negation. Ross and Postal treated squat as the canonical example and dubbed such terms “squatitives.” (See John Lawler’s notes on their presentation here.) Other squatitives identified by Ross and Postal range from the clearly vulgar jackshit, shit, crap, dick, fuck all, and bugger all to the more innocuous beans and zilch. Jackshit can be shortened to jack, and the similar function it plays to doodly/diddly-squat lends further credence to the idea that the latter started off as something more excremental.
By the time Paul Postal returned to the topic in his 2004 collection Skeptical Linguistic Essays he abandoned the term “squatitive” in favor of “vulgar minimizer.” But in the meantime, Laurence R. Horn, a leading scholar of negation, took up “squatitive” in his own presentations and papers starting in 1996, leading to his 2001 article “Flaubert triggers, squatitive negation, and other quirks of grammar,” published in the edited volume Perspectives on Negation and Polarity Items.
As Horn explains, a squatitive “can appear either in the scope of a licensing negation as the equivalent of anything, or on its own as the counterpart of nothing.” Thus, as Benjamin K. Bergen notes in his book What the F, we can just as easily say “You don’t know jackshit” (where jackshit = anything) as “You know jackshit” (where jackshit = nothing). This all has to do with what’s known as Jespersen’s Cycle (after Otto Jespersen), in which a term can gain negative force on its own without the need for another term that “licenses” its negation.
The history of doodly-squat can cast light on how such squatitives have developed seemingly contradictory uses. As Horn observes, in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1934 example, “She ain’t never had nothin’—not eben doodly-squat,” not eben (i.e., not even) is in licensing position, rendering doodly-squat a negative polarity item. But note that the Hurston passage features a hallmark of African American English, negative concord. With negative concord, what Horn calls a “licensed squatitive” could be considered equivalent to nothing, not just standard English anything. Thus, Emerson’s “Your gal ain’t doodly-squat” would be equivalent to “Your gal ain’t nothing” in AAE. This may help explain how squatitives could historically get recast with the opposite valence (equivalent to standard English nothing), thus requiring no additional licensing to express a negative.
In his 2001 article, Horn appropriately uses “My gal is red hot / Your gal ain’t doodly-squat” as an epigraph for the section on squatitive negation, though he attributes the lyrics to cover artist Billy Lee Riley. But with Emerson’s passing, let’s make sure he gets the recognition he deserves for bringing squatitives to the masses.
Update, May 2: Belatedly, I came across an early musical use of doodly-squat in Blind Willie McTell’s 1935 song, “Hillbilly Willie’s Blues” (Decca 7117).
My baby got a house an’ a lot, darlin’
My baby got a house an’ a lot, darlin’
My baby got a house an’ a lot
Poor me ain’t got doodly-squat, darlin’
Blind Willie McTell was born in Thomson, Georgia and worked as a street performer in Atlanta and Augusta before traveling more widely around the country as a blues musician. Stephen Calt notes McTell’s usage in his Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary (2009), glossing doodl(e)y-squat as “a black euphemism for shit, used as an expression of negative value.” Calt adds, “As a synonym for ‘nothing,’ it has been (along with the more prevalent squat) a general American colloquialism since the 1960s.”
I read an interview with Bo Diddley in his latter years. As I recall, he had a trailer then, with a bumper sticker reading “If you think Elvis invented Rock’n’Roll, you don’t know Diddley”.
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I hope all is well. If you have some time to spare: https://youtu.be/HRHRygYxGBU
The same process that affects squatitives (Jespersen’s Cycle) was operative in French with “pas” meaning “step”, where “je ne marche pas”, meaning “I do not walk one step”, extended to other verbs so you could say, e.g., “Je ne parle pas”, unto the point that “pas” by itself came to be a negator and the “ne” would often be dropped, e.g. “Je parle pas.”
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