We know what Tropical Storm Gordon wasn’t, at least around Louisiana.
It wasn’t the first test of the troubled Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans’ new director, Ghassan Korban, the longtime Milwaukee public works official whose first day on the job happened to come as Louisiana was under a state of emergency.
It wasn’t a crisis, or anything close. In truth, it didn’t amount to much of anything, except for a day or two off from school or work for some folks.
That’s what it wasn’t. But what, in fact, was it?
Raise your hand if you’d call it a shoo-shoo.
I did, briefly, in a short item that caught the attention of my able editor, Danny Heitman, who let me know that he’s lived in Louisiana all his life and never heard the term. I offered up the idea that it could be a Cajun phrase — a theory that I’d picked up from another co-worker, investigations editor Gordon Russell. It basically described something that once held great promise but amounted to little.
Heitman said that his wife comes from a big sprawling Cajun family and he’s heard plenty of colorful terms around the table, but not this one. So in an abundance of caution, we changed the reference in my piece from “shoo-shoo” to “no show,” and moved on.
But the question, at least in my mind, remained.
A quick Google search unearthed a couple of columns from New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde, who had his own take on the term, based on a story that also involved Gordon Russell. Back in 2013, when a storm named Karen was heading this direction, Russell predicted on Laborde’s weekly WYES show, “Informed Sources,” that the storm would be a shoo-shoo. The host at the time, Larry Lorenz, stopped short and said he didn’t know what that meant. Laborde, though, did, and wrote later that he was “aghast” to learn that some locals weren’t familiar with the term.
“Suddenly a show during which the previous half-hour had been dedicated to discussing crime, politics and scandal, became lively in its last few minutes with debate over the origin and public familiarity of a phrase, which given the sudden interest was anything but a shoo-shoo,” Laborde wrote.
One measure of whether a phrase has penetrated the public consciousness is whether it shows up in news stories.
The Advocate’s online archives offer up just one mention, in an old Gambit piece on former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s once-vaunted crackdown on municipal corruption, which led to many arrests but no large-scale convictions. The Times-Picayune, though, also called the storm Karen a shoo-shoo in a 2013 headline.
Still more Googling led to a lengthy blog post on the New Orleans Bar Association page, under the heading “New Orleans Nostalgia” by Ned Hémard. In it, Hémard said that every boy that grew up in New Orleans (at least in his age group) knew that shoo-shoo was a local expression for “a firecracker that doesn’t go off,” which is as good a definition as I’ve heard.
Hémard also unearthed an Advocate piece from 1979, well before the paper’s online archives begin, in which a man from Chauvin used the term to describe yet another tropical system, Hurricane Bob.
“We got ready for a big firecracker, but all we got was a shoo-shoo,” Hubert Martin said. “But thank God nobody got his fingers popped off.”
Martin’s comment doesn’t entirely clear up the mystery, but it does point to a key take-away from this most recent shoo-shoo, or whatever it was. When we have the luxury of thinking about terminology rather than life and death matters, things are OK.
So let’s call the area’s brief brush with Gordon what it really was, in language that everyone can understand: It was a relief.