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Hoodoo turned into a lot of work

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    The Vindicator | Casey Stinnett — The Vindicator’s first Word of the Day post to its Facebook page was hoodoo, defined in Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd edition, unabridged as meaning unlucky.

The Vindicator began posting a Word of the Day to its Facebook page a week ago last Friday and has posted one each day since. Our first word was hoodoo, posted with this introduction:

“The Vindicator has in its offices a Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd edition, unabridged, published in 1947, and as far as anyone here knows The Vindicator has had it since 1947.

“Leafing through its 3,210 pages, it occurs to us that we might not yet have learned all of the words in the English language, and that likewise there might also be a few words that have escaped our readers thus far.

“We are therefore going to take a stab at posting a ‘Word of the Day.’ Please understand that we are in no way attempting to educate anyone. We wouldn’t think of doing that. It would only make people mad. The Vindicator is offering these posts purely for their entertainment value. To prove this we will post only the most useless words we can find in our volume of Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd edition, unabridged.”

One of the our Facebook followers raised issue with our calling hoodoo a useless word. This prompted an evening’s research and an email to the Merriam-Webster. Below is The Vindicator’s email to Merriam-Webster followed by Merriam-Webster’s reply.

Vindicator email to Merriam-Webster

I am the editor of a small weekly newspaper in Texas called The Vindicator.

For the humor of it The Vindicator today began posting to its Facebook page a “Word of the Day” using unusual words found in Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd edition, unabridged, published in 1947. We are using that edition because it has been in The Vindicator offices since 1947 and contains more unusual words than your smaller, more recent editions. We announced our first Word of the Day post saying we intended to select the most useless words we can find in order to avoid the appearance of our trying to educate our readers, which would only make them mad.

Our first Word of the Day was hoodoo.

One of our contrary readers, and they are all contrary, immediately commented with an argument that hoodoo is not a useless word, explaining that another definition exists other than the one we had found in the 1947 dictionary, and for that definition hoodoo is used on a standardized state test administered to second-graders in Texas.

This prompted our looking it up ourselves in your iPhone app, where we see you say the first known use of hoodoo as a noun dates to 1875 and as a verb to 1886.

Researching that further, we have found even earlier uses and two additional meanings for hoodoo.

Hoo-doo was used to mean voodoo in the Feb. 17, 1872 edition of The Junction City Weekly Union, saying, ‘The movement of Manhattan to gobble a piece of Pottawatomie county, we understand, is conceded to be a failure. It would benefit a number of the people of the tract sought for if their official relations were changed to Manhattan. But what we want to speak of is the ‘hoo-doo’ upon which the whole movement was based.”

Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, vol. 6, July 1870, p. 92 says, “A few years back the rites of the ‘Hoodoo’ were practiced and believed in in the city of New Orleans.”

In the Feb. 28, 1874 edition of the Columbus Era and in the April 12, 1874 edition of The Nebraska State Journal, hoodoo is used to mean dance or party.

The Jan. 18, 1868 edition of the Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner says, “A correspondent of the New York Herald, describing a portion of the territories recently ceded by Russia to the United States, gives an amount of a strange festivity at which he was present, and which the Indians call a hoodoo.” The writer then describes a dance around a large fire.

The Mississippi Free Trader on Aug. 25, 1849 published an article describing New Orleans that says, “They have what they call the Hoodoo dance, which so thoroughly entrances them that they forget themselves, and seem the creatures of another world, with a wild, vacant and unmeaning stare from the eyes,— in this plight they approach the by-standers, place their hands upon your own, sing Hoodoo and pass on; you are then, safe from any danger.”

The Buffalo Commercial on Sept. 9, 1864 used hoo-doo to mean some kind of African animal in a story headlined, “Captain Speke’s Adventure with a Boa Constrictor.” That article was republished by many other newspapers.

So, hoodoo as a variation of voodoo dates to 1870. To mean a dance it dates to 1849. The use of hoo-doo to mean an animal appears, as far as we can find, in only that one article first published in The Buffalo Commercial, and therefore should probably not be included as an accepted definition of the word.

Tomorrow’s scheduled Word of the Day is forthink, but today’s experience leads us to forthink our continuing to post a Word of the Day. This turned into a lot of work.

Reply from Merriam-Webster

Dear Mr. Stinnett,

Many thanks for the amusing tale of your first Word of the Day post and for the nicely-documented antedatings of hoodoo. As the person in charge of dating research here, I’m especially grateful for the latter. Assuming the entry remains as it is, we will certainly be able to use your 1870 evidence to revise our entry date. If any of the other senses you mentioned are added to the entry, perhaps we’ll be able to use some of your other evidence to back an even earlier date.  In any case, I’ll get a revision in the pipeline right away. You should see it reflected in our online dictionary probably by the end of this year or the early part of 2020.

I feel your pain regarding the amount of research you’re doing! Digital archives are a blessing insofar as they offer so much information for a researcher to mine, but something of a curse in how much time and effort it takes to sort through all the returns.

Keep up the good work! I’ll bet your readers are loving the new feature.


Joanne M. Despres

Merriam-Webster Editorial Department

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