The different grooves of ‘groovy’

Posted by on August 07, 2012

On the blog last week, Orin wrote a very interesting post about the different meanings of funky. It got me thinking about a related word, groovy, and how its use has drifted over a century and a half.

When groovy first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, its meaning was physical: resembling or relating to a groove. I don’t recall ever hearing it used like this, but it’s easy to imagine scenarios where it would make perfect sense – though it would be hard not to also think of its more common meaning of pleasing, attractive, fashionable, etc.

Within a few decades, groovy had taken on a figurative sense, as words tend to do. I tweeted about this now-obscure usage a while ago. From groove meaning rut or (routine) way of life, groovy came to mean staid, stuck in a rut, or tending to stick to a narrow or conservative way of life. So it was mildly pejorative, quite contrary to its familiar current meaning.

The jazz age in America gave birth to the phrase in the groove, and from this emerged another groovy: playing jazz or other music with seemingly effortless skill, or being capable of doing so. This sense in turn led to groovy meaning pleasing, attractive, excellent: it became an adjective and exclamation of general approval or pleasure. It could also suggest something was hip or fashionable.

Because it was slang, though, the word didn’t show up much in edited prose: its earliest appearance in the Corpus of Historical American English is in 1947 in Time magazine, where a group is described as “fairly groovy” at the end of eight weeks of singing lessons – probably indicating that they grooved well together. Three years later, Harper’s refers to a situation where “In the jazz jargon, ‘Things were groovy, man!’”

The database shows that in subsequent years groovy was used to refer, in a positive or admiring way, to music, bands, people, food, shoes, dancing, writing, buildings, places, general situations, and feelings (thank you, Simon & Garfunkel). This broad and approving sense continues into the present, but it wasn’t a smooth rise to popularity.

After groovy had its heyday in 1960s hippie culture, it declined precipitously for a time before enjoying a revival in the 1980s–1990s. Madonna advised us to get into the groove, while Groovy! and Groovy, baby! became catchphrases thanks to the films Army of Darkness and Austin Powers, respectively.

Jazz may have brought groovy to the masses, but pop culture brought it back from unfashionable obscurity.

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Comments (2)
  • In my country Nigeria, the word “groovy”, means interesting since people always refer 2some parties or events as being groovy when it’s being enjoyed by everyone.

    Posted by Blessyn Serri on 10th August, 2012
  • In that case, Blessyn, thank you for your groovy comment.

    Posted by Stan on 13th August, 2012
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