Men say a lot of strange things when they encounter a woman they find attractive, most of which we will not print here. But one safe-for-work phrase is particularly strange: “hubba hubba.” Where did this odd little set of sounds come from, and how did it become associated with pretty ladies?
Like many expressions, the origin of “hubba hubba” is debated. Neatorama explains four of the most common theories, many of them beginning with the military. The first says that it came from the Chinese “ni hao pu hao,” and was picked up by Army Air Corps members while they were training with Chinese pilots in Florida during World War II. This version of history claims that the phrase spread through Bob Hope, the host of a weekly radio show broadcast from military bases. The problem with this theory that “hao pu hao” was completely mistranslated. It actually means “are you well,” but was mistranslated to “it is good under heaven when boy meets girl.”
The second military theory stays in the military but loses the Chinese. This one says the word “hubbub” was taken up by a military leader, who forced his troops to shout the words. The third military history says is that it’s a shortened and mutated version of the “hup hup hup” used by drill sergeants.
It might not be all soldiers’ faults though—other theories that Neatorama provides involve baseball (“haba haba” meaning “hurry hurry”) and television (one character on The Honeymooners used to say “hamina hamina” when confused or excited). The Honeymooners explanation doesn’t hold up to Oxford English Dictionary, however, as it point to 1944 as the first reference to the word, when in the journal American Speech the following sentence was published: “The inevitable fact is that the cry ‘Haba-Haba’ is spreading like a scourge through the land.”
But none of these get us to the sexual connotation of the word. For a theory on that we have to turn to Playboy, where Margaret Atwood suggests that “hubba hubba” actually came from the German word “hubsche,” which means beautiful. But linguist Anatoly Liberman, writing in the Oxford University Press’s Language blog, says that looking far beyond our borders for the origins of this word is fruitless:
Hubbub, as already mentioned, has come to English from Irish, so that hubba-hubba may be a loanword. Yet attempts to trace it to some foreign source (Chinese, Spanish, and Yiddish) carry no conviction and have been abandoned. In all probability, hubba-hubba is English.
So, as with many etymological mysteries, the origin is still pretty mysterious. And while the phrase is slowly fading into the distance when it comes to cultural relevance, it still pops up here and there. In 2004, New Zealand launched a safe sex campaign with the slogan “No Rubba, No Hubba Hubba.”
More from Smithsonian.com: