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).Continue reading