Writing in the New York Times Book Review yesterday, Woody Allen (invoking the sort of stereotypes that would be offensive from the pen of a Gentile and maybe even from a Jew like Allen) referred to the American playwright George S. Kaufman as having a “standard tribal hooter and the natural blessing of wit common to his people.”

Benjamin Dreyer, an editor at the American publishing firm Random House, remarked on Twitter that he had only recently become aware of “hooter” as a slang term for “nose” and then had this illuminating exchange:


Mr. Dreyer’s last assessment is spot-on, in my humble opinion.

“Hooter” for nose isn’t all that old; the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from the 1958 book Bang to rights: an account of prison life, by Frank Norman. It’s clearly derived from another British sense of “hooter”–what Americans would call a car horn. Along the same lines, in Australian Rules Football, the hooter is the horn that sounds at the end of a period or a game. In the U.S., traditionally, the main slang meaning of “hooter” is the female breast, as seen in the chain of fine dining establishments.

Woody Allen (whose review proves–again in my humble opinion–that he’s much better at writing comic essays than movies) was in his high S.J. Perelman mode, which includes a mix not only of Britishisms but of Yiddish, low slang, and polysyllabic archaicisms. Thus his “hooter” doesn’t signal or awkward a widespread U.S. adoption. (We’re good with “honker” and “schnozz.”) The only other recent use in the Times was from book critic Dwight Garner, himself an estimable stylist. Reviewing a collection of Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesebury” cartoons in 2010, Garner referred to “the pencil-shaped hooter that his main character, Mike Doonesbury, has sticking out of his face.”


12 thoughts on ““Hooter”

  1. Hooter must be older than 1958. Tony Hancock (biggest British comic star of 1950s & early 60s) always referred to his and other peoples big noses as hooters (and also ‘brackets’. eg ‘he needs a punch up the bracket’.)

  2. Personal slang: in my house, ‘hooter’ means French horn, from my Dad’s jocularity ‘Froggy hooter’ when I was a kid. I’ve also come across (professional, classical) trombonist friends calling their instruments ‘hooters’.

  3. I grew up in Scotland and Canada with the word hooter used regularly as a word for nose. It was certianly in use long before 1964, the year in which Hard Day’s Night” was released and Paul’s terrible grandfather says of Ringo, “He can’t help having a hideous great hooter. And his poor little head trembling under the weight of it.”

  4. With regard to “gob” – mentioned in passing above – I think of that as belonging to a distinctly Irish register of BrE.

    1. I wouldn’t have said that about “gob”. I grew up in the north-east of England where the legend of the :Lampton Worm was well known. There was a song about it, which Wikipedia tells me was written in 1867. The first line of the chorus is “Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs”, which the article usefully translates as “Be quiet, boys, shut your mouths”. I thought the song was in the Geordie accent, but the article says Mackem. (For those that don’t know, a Geordie is from Tyneside, a Mackem from Wearside.)

  5. I never realized that gob as in gobsmacked (I didn’t know it was an originally British word), gobstopper (I assumed Roald Dahl made the word up), and gobshite (I knew the word from a distance as British/Irish slang) meant “mouth.” I think I thought all three of those words were nonsense words – I probably never thought of them all at the same time before. Now they all make more sense.

    1. Just wanted to note that I’ve done posts on all three words mentioned by James, but not yet on “gob,” which I haven’t encountered used by Americans.

  6. Hooter is also the horn at the end of the game in rugby league – and was traditionally also the sound that informed workers of a factory closing for the evening (in fact, in the early days, the rugby league usage was just to get a nearby factory to sound their hooter). The hooter would go off, then the production lines would be shut down and (if necessary) cleared away for the night, and thne everyone goes home.

    It’s not been adopted in the (posher, middle-class, in an English context*) rugby union yet; they play to a referee’s whistle.

    *rugby union is posh in England, Scotland and Ireland; it’s a mass-participation game in Wales.

  7. You’re wrong about Australian Rules – it’s a siren, not a hooter. I’ve lived in two AFL states, and I’ve never heard anyone call it a hooter.

    Examples are: final siren, sirengate (when the siren couldn’t be heard, and affected the outcome of the game).

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