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Heebie-jeebies or heebie jeebies is an American English idiom used to describe depression or anxiety. This can be as an after-effect of excessive alcohol intake (see Delirium tremens) or to describe a particular type of anxiety usually related to a certain person or place. For example, "He gives me the heebie jeebies", meaning "He makes me uncomfortably nervous". It can also refer to a particular form of intense apprehension, verging on horror, that is associated with opiate withdrawal.
The sound of this term seems to hark back to earlier rhyming phrases, like hocus-pocus and mumbo-jumbo, with a touch of the jitters thrown in. The meaning is more like the British term - the screaming abdabs.
Heebie jeebies was coined at a time and place when there was a spate of new nonsense rhyming pairs, called rhyming reduplications, - the bee's knees, etc., i.e. 1920s USA.
- You dumb ox - why don't you get that stupid look offa your pan - you gimme the heeby jeebys!
Heebie jeebies caught on quickly and very soon began appearing in many newspapers and works of literature in the USA and, from 1927 onward, the UK. For example, here's an entry from the Van Nuys News, 6 November 1923, just a few days after de Beck's cartoon was published:
- Bill Alton showed up poorly in center field. The boys seemed to have the heebie jeebies.
The lack of any explanation in either of the above citations seems to imply that the term would have been known to the readership of both publications by the time of printing.
The speed of take-up of heebie jeebies, in a similar way to another coinage that is attributed to DeBeck - horsefeathers-- does suggest an origin in the media rather than street slang, which tends to spread more slowly.
The term became part of the language quickly enough for it to begin appearing in advertisements from 1924 onwards.
Currently, the term is associated with the song "Heebie Jeebies (composition)", best known for the Louis Armstrong version