Word in the news: bangarang
You may have heard the word bangarang in the tribute paid to Robin Williams by US President Barack Obama, after the sad news of Williams’ death yesterday, and wondered what it means. Barack Obama said that “Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind.”
Obama was referencing many of Williams’ famous cinematic roles, from Mrs Doubtfire to Dead Poets’ Society, and in doing so he used an unusual word: bangarang.
The word can be heard in Hook (the 1991 film in which Williams played a grown-up version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan). In a scene where Peter trades insults with Rufio, the Lost Boys cheer on each insult with cries of ‘Bangarang!’ It is used as an exclamation, to indicate a successful jibe, but what does the word mean, and why did Obama use it?
Where does it come from?
Although Obama uses bangarang as an adjective, it is currently in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and OxfordDictionaries.com only as a noun. It is of West Indian origin, and means ‘an uproar or disturbance’. This sense is first found in English (according to the OED’s research) in 1943; a few years earlier, in 1935, there is evidence of bangarang (with the variant spelling bangaram) meaning simply rubbish or miscellaneous items, although this sense is now rare.
Bangarang with the more common sense (of uproar or commotion) is probably imitative in origin – that is, the pronunciation reflects the noise of a commotion – but it may possibly be related to the Portuguese banguelê (riot, disorder) which dates to the 19th century, itself perhaps a borrowing from an African language.
Bangarang may not be in very common parlance in English at the moment, but it seems fitting for Obama to use language from one of Williams’ films to pay tribute to a remarkable comedian and actor.