What are the screaming meemies?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word (well, really, it’s a phrase): screaming meemies.

I adore reduplications and I use them whenever I can. What are they? They occur whenever  the root or stem or a word (or part of it) or even the whole word, is repeated exactly or with a slight change. Let me give you some examples and you’ll see what I mean:

  • flim-flam
  • willy-nilly
  • namby-pamby
  • pitter-patter
  • riffraff

I encountered one of my all-time favourites this summer when I read Carl Hiaason’s amusing book Tourist Season. Here’s how he used it:

By the time a big company got around to referring one of its employees to a psychiatrist, the screaming meemies had already set in and the patient often was receiving radio beams from Venus. 

Of course I know that having screaming meemies means having an attack of nerves, but I’d never understood where the term came from, so I did some investigating. Here’s the story: It dates from the First World War, when it referred to a certain kind of German artillery shells that made a screaming sound something like “meem” or “meemie.”

Later, soldiers who experienced shell shock from hearing too many of those artillery shells were said to have the screaming meemies.  Later, it became synonymous with heebie jeebies, and now we hear it with several slightly different meanings, including “the willies” or “the creeps.”

During the Second World War, military officials resurrected the term to refer to a specific German rocket, the nebel-werfer, and then to many other enemy rockets.  Another term used for those rockets is said to have been Moaning Minnies.

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