In its sheer exuberance, that great American word Lollapalooza might be assumed to emanate from the same general reservoir of feel-good noises as “cowabunga”, “be-bop-a-lula”, and even “a-lop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom”. Except that, unlike those, it has a definite meaning. And strange to say, it may also have Irish origins.
Or so the journalist, satirist, and scholar of American English HL Mencken (1880-1956) thought.
In his book The American Language, while expressing surprise at the official scarcity of English words borrowed from Ireland, he suggested “lallapalooza” (his spelling) might be added to the short listed including “shillelagh” and “smithereens”.
In the form it had crossed the Atlantic, Mencken further surmised, it was “allay-foozee”, described as a “Mayo provincialism”. That meant “sturdy fellow”, a definition that remained intact in the expanded version.
Expansion aside, it seems to me, there is a big leap in sounds between allay-foozee and lallapalooza. Still, stranger reinventions have happened on the way through Ellis Island, I suppose.
As for allay-foozee, anyone with a smattering of French might sense in that a connection to the events of 1798. Sure enough, there is one. Mencken’s source was the Irish language scholar, PW Joyce, whose English as We Speak it in Ireland (1910), included this:
“In and around Ballina in Mayo, a great strong fellow is called an allay-foozee, which represents the sound of the French Allez-fusil [an order meaning ‘muskets forward’], preserving the memory of the landing of the French at Killala.”
Perhaps, therefore, the American term should be “Killala-palooza”. But once established in the US, like the sturdy fellows it described, the word was much in demand by local employers. In various spellings, it appears in print from 1896 onwards to mean a big or wonderful thing or person.
Exceptional golf shots were soon part of its repertoire. In PG Wodehouse’s short story, The Heart of a Goof (1923), for example, the disappointed lover Ferdinand Dibble is surprised by a sudden improvement in his game: “Today he had been so preoccupied with his broken heart that he had made his shots absently, almost carelessly, with the result that at least one in every three had been a lallapaloosa”.
Elsewhere in sport, the word became a war-cry of the Boston Red Sox. Then, in 1990s Chicago, it gained a whole new career as the name of an annual music festival. Randomly chosen for its euphonious qualities, Lollapalooza now also describes an event attracting 400,000 people every year, with exported versions in Europe, South America, and India.
In general, Menken thought that the existing US habit of adding to English words and phrases with intensifying prefixes and suffixes, as in “yes siree” and “yes indeedy”, had itself been intensified by immigration from Ireland:
“The Irishman is incapable of saying plain yes or no; he must always add some extra and gratuitous asseveration. The American liking for intensives, especially marked during the pre-Civil War period, undoubtedly got a lift from the Irish newcomers. The Dictionary of American English] traces no sir-ee to 1845 and yes sir-ee to 1846.”
Whether it inspired Lollapalooza – etymologies still declare the word a “fanciful construction” of origin unknown – however, allay-foozay also survived the transatlantic crossing intact in places, at least for a time.
During the 1920s and 30s, there was a famous press agent on Broadway named Richard Sylvester Maney. A New Yorker profile said he was the only member of his who could talk to a celebrity client with the “genial condescension of an Irish cop addressing a Fifth Avenue doorman”. But seeking a shorthand description, the New York Times in 1941 called him a “piquant allay-foozee” of a man.
Getting back to Mayo, that phrase was not the only piece of fossilised French to stay behind after General Humbert and his friends departed.
Some made it as far as Donegal, as recorded by the novelist Séamus Ó Grianna (aka Máire), who grew up in Gaeltacht area of Ranafast. Ó Grianna quoted the Gaelicised question “cail úr a’ tsíl?”, a thinly disguised “quelle heure est-il?”. He also mentioned an expression of indifference, “sláime tae geal”, which had been “cela m’est égal” before it went native.
The French army landed in Donegal too, briefly. But according to the historian Guy Beiner, the francophonic legacy was believed locally to have been imported by a carpenter who had served as an apprentice in Westport at the time of the invasion. In a 2011 essay for History Ireland, Beiner added that such examples were only the “tip of an iceberg” lurking below the surface of a “hidden Ireland”.