Goombye

A reader recently wrote me a question concerning the word “goombye,” which appears in this up-tempo Ivie Anderson song (penned by Duke Ellington) from 1939:

At first glance, I figured “goombye” might be an awkward attempt to transcribe African-American English (what the “m” would indicate, I have no idea). However, it seems clear that “goombye” is treated as a separate word from “goodbye;” it is here pronounced gumbaɪ, with the “goom” rhyming with “doom.”

Although “goom-bye” may have been African-American in origin, it seems to have used broadly in mid-20th-Century texts. A quick Google NGram search makes it clear that the word was always extremely infrequent, however. I get the hazy impression that it had a kind of jazzy/beatnicky connotation, although to be fair, most slang from that era sounds like that to my contemporary ears. (It does seem to have appeared once or twice in Kerouac’s writing, though).

In his book on slang, Flappers 2 Rappers, Tom Dalzell cites the word as being part of a trend toward puns and word-play in greetings and farewells around the time of the 1940s:

…good-byes could be handled with any number of puns, false borrowings, and slang ceremonial expressions such as “Alcohol you; Au Reservoir; Be Seein’ Ya; Be seein’ you in the funnies; Bye-Bye buy bonds; Good-bye gate, I must evaporate; Goom bye

To be honest, though, I have not the faintest idea what “goombye” could be a pun on. “Kumbabaya” wasn’t sung under that title until the 1940s (apparently), and “goombah” strikes me as entering the national consciousness somewhat later (although Tony Romano apparently released a song called “Goombye Goomba” in the 1950s). Is it supposed to be a play on “go on by?”

Another possibility is that the word started off as some kind of “faux-netic” transcription. Since “Goodbye” is such a common word, we often “slur” it a bit, most notably by dropping the /d/; I often pronounce it gʊbaɪ (“goo’bye”). I could see “goombye” being an awkward attempt to indicate this, but it’s hard to say if this is the case or not.

So I must acknowledge the possibility that this was merely a quirky attempt at spelling which was then “misinterpreted” by Ivie Anderson and other singers as constituting an entirely different word. But unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate another recording of “goombye” to confirm this. Has anybody heard an old recording of this word?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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8 Responses to Goombye

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    “Goombah” is a slang word for Italian American (not necessarily polite) used in old Northeast USA. Don’t know if this helps, but it might explain Tony Romano’s song.

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    From Yahoo answers on the word “Goomba” (seem reasonable):

    “This slang term probably originates from the Italian word compare (or the Sicilian cognate, “cumpari”, both akin to Spanish compadre), which was already (and still is) used in south Italy abbreviated in cumpà and literally means “friend” and it is used colloquially mainly to address people living in the same town. This, changed through the Italo-American tendency to substitute g’s for c’s and b’s for p’s in colloquial speech, yields “goombah.” “

    • @Charles,

      Thanks for that bit of info. I had some idea about the etymology of “goombah.” Alas, it doesn’t seem to appear much of anywhere before the 1950s, so it doesn’t seem to be what “goombye” is a play on.

  3. Gez Kelly says:

    Possibly also goombay, a Caribbean drum.

  4. Mary says:

    I seem to recall Col. Blake saying “goombye” (for goodbye) on an episode of M*A*S*H, but of course, that would have been scripted.

    • Joe says:

      I’m watching the M*A*S*H series now from DVD. I’m currently on episode 3×06 and this is at least the third episode I’ve noticed Colonel Blake saying that. I thought it was some mistake or I misheard it in other episodes or something but now I’ve noticed it enough times to know it’s intentional but I still don’t know why he uses it or where it came from so that’s why I’m here.

  5. Neuro Polarbear says:

    I have heard this on occasion in conversation, especially among kids.

    I always thought it was because b and m are both labial consonants and there are occasional transitions between them. I can’t think of any examples in English right now, but I understand it’s common in Swahili.

    Anyway, my hypothesis is:
    Step 1. Speakers lenite out the d in goodbye. “Guh-bye”
    Step 2. Speaker realizes a letter is missing, goes for soemthing like ‘gub-bye’
    Step 3. That sounds weird and to differentiate the letters, converts the b->m

    That’s a little easier to articulate, for me at least. the “mb” is slightly easier than “db”.

  6. Yockie says:

    Though it is not a recording, you can also find “Goom-bye” in the play “The Nerd”, by Larry Shue, on page 14, act I.