the story of foo

What This Country Needs Is Foo,

The Eddie DeLange Orchestra, vocals by Elisse Cooper


A while ago, a friend of mine gave me all his dad’s old 78 rpm records and one of them was the above “What This Country Needs Is Foo”. These days the word foo is still floating around in several forms, such as in the rock band Foo Fighters, the expression Foobar (or F.U.B.A.R), or as a term in computer talk to represent a particular part of system – but I had no idea that the word was used clear back in the thirties, and that it evidently was a popular expression.

The word foo apparently originated in the depression era cartoon strip Smokey Stover by Bill Holman. Holman’s cartoons were notable for his predilection for word games, puns, and visual sign gags, and after (so he says) he saw the word FOO signed on the bottom of a Chinese vase, the word became a ubiquitous stand in for other words and inside jokes, such as “many men smoke, but foo man chew”. The above recording from 1938 obviously owes a lot to Holman’s popularization of the term, but the story doesn’t end there because the word FOO marched on past its original novelty, and has expanded itself into a multifaceted signifier – of for the most part, the unknown, the unidentifiable, and/or the the absurd.

After the depression, the word FOO found itself going to war where it was reincarnated in a U.S. Army animated short The Three Brothers where a character named Fubar (brother of Snafu and Tarfu) decrying the ill effects of incompetence on the fighting force. The combination of FOO with the word BAR, or NO FOO started a process whereby FOOBAR became the “backronym”  F.U.B.A.R. or “fucked up beyond all recognition” that is common today. I guess this is a little like the brand FORD being backroynmed into the joke Fix Or Repair Daily.

But that’s not all, because FOO found another application during the war years. Army radar specialists and fans of of the original Holman cartoons, began to use the term FOO to describe images they couldn’t definitely identify on their radar screens as FOO FIGHTERS. Supposedly, these phantom enemy mirages that appeared on radar screens were also often “things” seen by friendly pilots that they themselves couldn’t identify. Most of the descriptions (“bright glowing objects that followed the aircraft, then flew off at astronomical speed”) of what all the pilots were then calling FOO FIGHTERS, matches rather seemlessly with descriptions of what today would be called U.F.O.s.

Funny, how a word – that’s not even in my dictionary – that’s been around for almost 80 years, and assumed the role of a kind of universal signifier of things just out of rational reach like, absurdity, out of control, nonsense, otherworldly, anonymous, U.F.O., or just plain messed up – is a word that itself just can’t quite find it’s way into a state of official legitimacy. So it is then, that FOO has and will, always remain in its own special and exclusive category of FOO. The rare and ubiquitous intimate other.

One Response to “the story of foo”

  1. Maxcrat Says:

    Brilliant post, A.M.

    FUBAR certainly seems appropos the Gulf “spill” situation these days.

    Perhaps some new variation will emerge for that specifically and horrifyingly fucked up situation, e.g., FUGOM, or FUSPILL. Although neither of those variants seem to have the necessary acronymic punch that seems needed to convey the full combination of catastrophe, compounded human error, and the triumph of greed capitalism uber alles.

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