Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Feelin' Groovy with Get the Word!

Audio Transcript

Hi everyone, it’s Mike. Today we’re talking about a word that most would argue is definitely past its peak popularity. Groovy. We’ll look at the interesting origin of this word and also why we have seen a resurgence in popularity of the word groovy over recent decades.

Let’s start with the definition. The most common uses of groovy are standing in for words like excellent, enjoyable, exciting…. There are about a million synonyms for groovy, but I’ll narrow it down to just some of my favorites: awesome; dynamite; cool; primo; radical; righteous; stellar. You get the idea.

When you think of the word ‘groovy’ you probably think of 1960s/70s hippie culture and slang, and there’s a reason for that. We can see its peak popularity in print around 1971. The less popular variant spelling of GROOVEY reached its peak popularity in 1969. Right around this time we were seeing groovy being used in advertising, in plays, in musicals… It was all over the place.

This word was everywhere in the 60s and 70s. Musical groups like Simon and Garfunkel were telling us: “we’ve got a groovey thing goin’ on” which was the flipside to their more well known hit The Sounds of Silence (better known as The Sound of Silence) and then one year later Simon and Garfunkel wanted to remind us that they were still feeling groovy by releasing The 59th Street Bridge Song AKA (Feelin’ Groovy). Interestingly enough, We've Got a Groovey Thing Goin’ was spelled GROOVEY when it was released and Feelin’ Groovy was released with the more common spelling of ‘GROOVY’.

We also had Somebody Groovy in 1966 by The Mamas & the Papas, Groovy People by Lou Rawls in 1976. Bands like The Flamin’ Groovies from San Francisco who formed in the mid 60s, and even TV programs like The Groovy Show from 1967 to 1970 and a cartoon show called Groovie Goolies which ran from 1970 to 1972.

The term predates the counterculture movements of the 60s in the USA, however, and can actually be traced all the way back to the 1850s, so let’s dive in.

The earliest uses in print that I, as well as, can find that date back to the mid 19th century are with a literal use, with groovy, being an adjective related to a groove, or in other words, a long narrow cut or depression, especially one made to guide motion. This will be the word we eventually will use to describe the depressions cut into a phonograph record, which we will talk a bit more about in a second. So we were seeing ‘groovy’ being used just to relate to the surface of something, ‘a groovy surface’. “Groovy surfaces which destroy the circularity of the holes” is one use I found dating back to 1852.

In case you were wondering, the word ‘groove’ does share the same etymological root that gives us the modern day use of ‘grave’, as in, a hole in the ground for a dead body. Both having the same Proto-Indo-European root which can also be translated to other English words we use today, including ‘dig’, ‘bury’ and ’scratch’… and in case you were wondering, Proto-Indo-European refers to prehistoric populations of Eurasia and the languages they spoke, all of which had quite an impact on many modern day languages.

A figurative sense of ‘groove’ has been traced back to 1842, but wasn’t associated with anything exciting or good, rather, it meant you were stuck in a rut, or just that you had a routine. We most definitely use ‘groove’ in this way in modern English, as well as the phrase ‘being in the groove’ which often means you are performing consistently well at something. In case you were wondering, this figurative sense for being in a routine, or rut, which in my mind evokes an image of a record needle being stuck in a groove slowly spiraling toward the center of a record, does seem to predate the phonograph, which wouldn’t be invented until the 1870s.

Let’s talk about the phonograph now. Anyone familiar with vinyl records knows that you must drop the stylus, or needle, into grooves that have been etched into a flat round disc. Before it was flat discs it was wax cylinders. The disc phonograph record was the dominant audio recording format in the 20th century, and, of course, is still around today. ‘Groove’ to mean ‘the spiral cut in a phonograph record’ most likely dates back to the turn of the 20th century.

Let’s get back to groovy. The slang sense related to ‘excellent’ or ‘enjoyable’ predates the hippie movement of the 60s, and can be traced back to the jazz scene of the 1930s. According to well known linguist D. Gary Miller, groovy was adapted as a ‘term for capable jazz musicians who were themselves ‘in the groove’’ in somewhere around 1937. Miller also points out that the more general sense of something being ‘excellent’ or ‘cool’ would catch on as popular teen slang by the 50s.

Based on our timeline, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit that some of you are making a connection between the rise of groovy as a slang term and the rising popularity of recorded music on disc phonograph records in the 1930s, among which were many great jazz recordings. I’m right there with ya’. However, according to the book Flappers 2 Rappers American Youth Slang by Tom Dalzell, Tommy Dorsey, the famous jazz trombonist and bandleader of the big band era, known as the “Sentimental Gentleman of Swing”, argues that there was no connection between the grooves of a record and the rise of the slang term. Dorsey was quoted in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1942 as saying: “When the boys and I hear a good record nowadays we says it’s “groovey.” Last year that would have been “in the groove.” The expression has nothing to do with the grooves on the record’s surface, it just means we think it’s a fine piece of music.”

Perhaps one of the earliest uses in print of ‘groovy’ as a counterculture slang term comes from Cab Calloway’s Jive Dictionary, which was first printed in 1938. Cab Calloway was an American jazz singer, dancer, bandleader, actor and the man who helped introduce jazz slang being used in the 1930s, particularly in New York’s Harlem district, to the general public with his Jive Dictionary. In the Jive Dictionary, ‘groovy’ is defined simply as an adjective for ‘fine’, with the example: “I feel groovy”.

Calloway had a loooong career in jazz and has memorable roles in popular films including The Cincinnati Kid from 1965 and the 1980 John Belushi Dan Akroyd film The Blues Brothers, in which Calloway performs his big hit Minnie the Moocher.

Despite periods of semi-dormancy, like in the mid 80s, groovy has never gone away. After the break we’ll talk about more recent spikes in the popularity of this word. Stay with us.


Ngram, which tracks the use of words in print all the way back to the 1500s, shows a steady increase in use of groovy starting in the late 1980s that continued to rise in use until its second peak in popularity right around 2010 (remember the first being the late 60s early 70s).

I have some theories as to why we see this second peak. By the late 80s we would have had a wave of nostalgia seeping into culture as the aging generation who were teenagers in the 50s and 60s start to look back with rose tinted glasses at their youth. In 1997 we would see released the first Austin Powers film, International Man of Mystery. In the films, Austin Powers, a man cryogenically frozen for thirty years, is thawed out in the late 90s to defeat his evil nemesis bent on world domination, Dr. Evil. This wildly popular movie, and its two sequels, The Spy who Shagged Me in 1999 and Goldmember in 2002, most certainly helped to reinvigorate late 60s popular culture, including the term ‘groovy’.

So why the peak popularity in print media in 2010? Well, perhaps taking a peek at the books printed that year will give us a clue. That year, we see books printed that are steeped in nostalgia, but I also kept coming across books referencing a very different ‘groovy’. Groovy is the name of a Java based computer programming language. All of the programming nerds out there I’m sure are familiar with this other Groovy. Groovy 1.0 was released 2007. For all of you, like myself, who are not programming nerds, it may seem improbable that this additional use of the term ‘groovy’ could have contributed to the peak in popularity we see in 2010, however, in that year alone we see many books published about this Java based programming language. For example, an edition of Groovy Programming, An Introduction for Java Developers; another book called Groovy for Domain-specific Languages; another called Getting Started with IBM WebSphere sMash which includes sections about Groovy…. just to name a few.

What do you think caused this second peak in popularity in 2010? Write in to the podcast and share your thoughts.

— Fact Cabinet —

Let’s peer into the Fact Cabinet, where I keep my collection of items that always seem to tie into the topic at hand.

Here’s my worn out VHS copy of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. As a refresher, this is the one where Dr. Evil builds a time machine and travels back to 1969 to steal Austin’s mojo. Many of you probably already know that Mike Myers, who played Austin Powers as an Englishman in the films, is Canadian by birth… but did you know that his parents are from Liverpool. The humour in the film is influenced by his heritage. Myers is quoted as saying: “Austin Powers is everything I watched (on TV in the late sixties). My parents were from Liverpool, and there's no one more English than an Englishman who no longer lives there. Every molecule of British culture that came across the Atlantic was tasted and worshipped.”

Here’s my collection of 78 RPM records from the 1920s and 30s. This would become that stand RPM speed for phonograph discs until the rise of the 45 and the popular LP 33 1/3 speed which is what is still most common today. Let’s put one on the ol’ Victrola, shall we? (clip) well you get the idea…

I have a little fact that ties into last week’s fact related to differences in electrical voltage that we see around the globe. Did you know that we see not only differences in voltage depending on what part of the world you’re in, but also differences in hertz? That’s right. Hertz is a unit of frequency. It measures cycles per second. Around 40 different countries run their electricity on 60 Hz and the rest are typically run on 50 Hz.

How does this relate to today’s topic? Well, this difference in hertz will affect the speed of a motor, including motors used to govern a record player’s speed to 78 revolutions per minute. Peter Copeland of the British Library National Sound Archive has this to say about it: “Because of electrical mains frequencies differences on opposite sides of the Atlantic, stroboscopic speed testers and synchronous motors meant a nominal speed of 77.922 rpm in countries that used 50 hertz and 78.261 in countries that used 60 hertz. These were later fixed in national (but not international) standards. “

Would this make a perceivable difference in how the music sounds to the listener? Well maybe I’ll take my Victrola with me on my trip to Scotland. You see, the USA, where I am now, is a 60hz country but the UK is a 50hz country. I’ll keep you all posted on my findings. If you know, or want to experiment, let us know, write in to the podcast.

— End Fact Cabinet —

Before we end today, I want to share a comment that Christian left on the website regarding last week’s episode on the word ‘ben’. “Super interesting topic and well-produced podcast and episode. Thanks Mike!”

Much appreciated. Here’s also a recent message left for the podcast regarding the episode on ‘my two cents’.

Very interesting stuff, thank you Ania! 


Show notes:

"The Incredible Talking Machine". Time Inc. June 23, 2010.

Fact Cabinet:  Mike Myers parents from Liverpool - VHS copy John Storey (2010). "Culture and Power in Cultural Studies: The Politics of Signification". p. 60. Edinburgh University Press

Copeland, Peter (2008). Manual of Analogue Audio Restoration Techniques (PDF). London: British Library. pp. 89–90. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-16. - 78 of….

Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center:

And Kevin Macleod

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches:


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