Monday, December 21, 2009

Voodoo vs Vodou

It was OK for Cole Porter in "You Do Something to Me" to write: "You do that voodoo that you do so well."

That was in 1929; in 2009 "voodoo" is considered offensive.

That's the party line. But Porter's use of voodoo is a clever rhyming device. (How else to explain the rather silly sentence?) Offense is taken when "voodoo" is used to describe the African-derived religious practices and beliefs. Voodoo as a derogatory word derived from the time of U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

As Harold Courlander has noted, "Properly used [the word 'voodoo'] specifies the black magic, witchcraft, mojos, greegrees, love potions, hate potions, etc. that once existed (and possibly to some extent still do) in the American South among blacks and whites alike."

That is in contrast to the religion Vodou (also spelled Vodoun, Vodun, or Vodu) practiced today--mostly in Haiti and in parts of the U.S. (The Washington Examiner ran a recent Q&A, "How the Voodoo Do It," with a Vodoun mambo. Note the offensive voodoo in the title; old practices and words are hard to give up.)

So go ahead and do that voodoo that you do so well, just don't confuse it with the religion.

Dec. 23 Addendum

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage makes an interesting distinction: "voodoo is a religion with many followers in Africa and the West Indies, not to mention the United States. They are offended by disparaging uses of voodoo to mean irrational beliefs."

It's not the spelling of voodoo. It's the disparaging use of the word denoting the religion that's considered offensive. Consider the difference with Gypsy versus Roma. They are two distinct words, the first considered offensive, the second the accepted for the itinerant peoples mostly in southern Europe. Voodoo is a corruption of vodou, but is it really offensive? I'm not convinced.

("Déja Voodoo" T-shirt is available at


  1. From listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing it a few hundred times, I think the rather silly sentence is "DO do that voodoo that you do so well." (Would that be the imperative?)
    jane, aka anonymous

  2. Thanks for the correction, Jane, aka Anonymous. I double-checked, and you're correct "Do do that voodoo." I hope it is imperative, and not "doodoo"!

  3. Actually, Voodoo is now considered to be the New Orleans branch of Haitian Vodou that was brought there from Haitian immigrants long, long ago, also blending in the Vodu (original Yorubaland religion) religion from black slaves brought there from West Africa primarily by the French.

    If you want to find out how offensive it is, consider the fact that most mainstream media will not publish the opinion of many black people, and certainly aren't interested in publishing much on the actual religion of Vodou (or Voodoo) because of the condemning reactions of the major purchasers of said media might have, namely the WASP community.

    As a Vodou priestess who knows many Haitians, I will tell you that using the term Voodoo is quite offensive to many, especially when used in the way that Western society uses it, to mock and denigrate not only a religion, but an entire cultural lifestyle which it does not even bother to understand. The "Christian" majority of the United States will loudly defend their right to worship a resurrected cosmic Jewish zombie (in the Hollywood sense of the word), eat his flesh and blood on special occasions, a man who was his own father in their dogma (since God in three persons is in fact, one God -- go figure)... but will protest that anyone who doesn't believe in the zombie is going to be roasted alive and tortured by a horned red-faced goat demon for all eternity. Yet they like to mock the religions of others and do not care how insensitive they are towards them. One more case for majority rules, but might doesn't make right, as we have so often seen, sadly, throughout the history of humanity.

    It's all in the context, really... think about the use of the fabled N word. Its most frequent usage is among the black community who have reclaimed it as a source of solidarity and pride, but if a racist person who is not a part of that community uses it, it's offensive. Same dynamic here. The reason you don't think it's offensive is because you don't have a large community of Haitians around you telling you not to, period. The racism and hate they have faced as immigrants in America also makes them reluctant to speak out against what offends them, as well.

    So there it is, for what it's worth. Hope you can glean something from that, David.

  4. Thank you so much for your enlightening comments. I really appreciate your insight into this topic. I queried hundreds of copy editors around the country about this and no one has responded. Until the recent earthquake in Haiti, the people and culture of Haitians have largely been ignored and misunderstood. That may change.

    Recently I've seen the vodou spelling in The New Yorker and the New York Times. The publication where I work will also spell it vodou in an upcoming article. The tide may be changing. In any case, I hope people come to a better understanding of the religion and disparaging usage of voodoo.

    Thank you, again, for your valuable comments.


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