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Heebie-jeebies or heebie jeebies is an American English idiom used 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. The phrase is often used to indicate that the speaker cannot determine what, exactly, is making them apprehensive, only that something is.
The term likely has its genesis in the west, or mid-west of the United States of America, where the reference was an anti-religious statement, referring to those who studied both Christian and Hebrew scriptures/texts (possibly Old Lutheran). The extreme Protestant nature of these people would have been seen as odd, much like the Amish People are often perceived, quite possibly giving birth to the term, Heebie Jeebie (Hebrew + Jesus) that has morphed into its non-offensive modern-day variant, which applies to anything that is misunderstood and the cause of anxiety.
- 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.