The “Floy Floy” Matzah Ball Mystery

The meaning of “floy floy” is a mystery that has baffled experts for years.

The word appeared in the Slim Gaillard ditty, “Flat-Foot Floogie,” back in the 1930s, a song that referred ambiguously to a “flat foot floogie with a floy floy.” Despite its popularity, no one really knew what “floy floy” meant at the time.

The song was so popular that no less a celebrity that Mary Livingstone, of the Jack Benny radio show, referred to herself proudly as Flat-Foot Mary with (yes) floy floy.

While “floogie” is clearly a euphemism for “floozie” (Bowdlerized to make the song palatable for 1930s radio audiences) “floy floy” remains a mystery.

What exactly is this “floy floy,” which the song appears to make so much fun of?

It turns out that there are three popular theories, based on slang from the 1930s. The most widespread theory is that it means venereal disease, either syphilis or gonorrhea.

But even this is dubious.

Tom Samuels, who is writing a biography of Slim Gaillard, stated recently on the internet that “I haven’t found any proof that ‘floy floy’ means venereal disease. It’s probably a myth.” Samuels points out the speculation seems have to originated with Robert Hendrickson, who wrote about slang in popular word origin books, and who “conveyed uncertainty over the definition of ‘floy floy’.”

All these theories seem far-fetched in terms of historical evidence but have been offered as serious explanations for the word by etymologists.

The most commonly agreed upon explanation seems to be that it was simply a nonsense word invented by Slim Gaillard, who used many made-up words in his songs as “filler” (the equivalent of modern rap artists talking over their beats).

The floy floy mystery might never be solved, but it’s a great example of the way language can evolve and change over time, with words taking on new meanings that even the people who use them don’t always understand.

And come to think of it, who was Slim Gaillard?

He was a self-taught musician and comedian who came to prominence in the 1930s and 1940s with his clever wordplay, scat singing and innovative guitar playing. He was part of the “Swing” or “Jazz” scene in New York City and Los Angeles and recorded with some of the biggest names in Jazz. He continued to perform and record into the 1970s, long after his heyday, and his influence can still be heard in modern music. He gained new popularity in the 1980s through his appearance in Absolute Beginners , a film about the British Mod movement.

During his Depression/WW2-era heyday, he frequently sang about matzah balls and gefilte fish. Why? No one knows for sure. Gaillard claimed variously to be an afro-Cuban, and also half-Jewish. His birthplace might have been Detroit, Cuba or New York City; no one is sure. And was he really Jewish? His jokes about Jewish food were probably just part of his overall routine, but no one knows for sure.

But at the end of the day, it’s not really important to know exactly what floy floy means or how Slim Gaillard ended up singing about matzah balls and gefilte fish. What matters is that he was a musical innovator who helped shape modern music in significant ways and continues to be relevant today. But even as we try to understand him, there’s something mysterious and unknown at the core of his story — the “Floy Floy”/gefilte fish/matzah ball mysteries.

So there you have it: the “floy floy” mystery remains unsolved. But Slim Gaillard was a fascinating musician and comedian who left a lasting mark on American culture.

In any case, the next time you hear someone use the word “floy floy,” remember: it might not mean what they think it means. And that’s part of the fun.


Article by the staff of Audere Magazine. Image, Slim Gaillard, by Phil Wright, CC 2.0