Who’s got the giggling girls all going gaga? They aren’t going to gogo dance to gagaku – Japanese ceremonial music isn’t their gig. Is it Kajagoogoo? No, they’re too shy for the ’80s one-off wonder. And Gigi is greeted with “Good grief!” No, the popular person with the poker face peeping past paparazzi is none other than Stefani Germanotta, also known as Lady Gaga.
And why is she Lady Gaga? She’s not a champion player of the ball game ga-ga – it’s more popular in Israel and at Jewish summer camps in the US. (Nor is it that her fans yearn for her – gaga also meaning “yearn” in Hebrew – though they surely do.) She’s Italian-American, after all. Nor does her singing sound like quacking (gaga) to Mandarin speakers (in Albanian “quack” is gagaga; in Russian, gaga means “eider duck” – onomatopoeia has consistent effects, but she’s still not a duck). She may or may not be thought strong or dashing (gagah) by Indonesians and Malays, but never mind.
But in Portuguese and Spanish, we see that gaga means “senile” (it can also mean “smart” in Spanish), and in French it means “silly.” And while Lady Gaga is neither of these, they are related to our English word gaga, as in going gaga over her.
But Lady Gaga doesn’t get her gaga from that, either. She gets it from being compared to Freddie Mercury. How is that mercurial singer a source of gaga? Actually, it was the drummer for Mercury’s band (Queen, if you don’t know), Roger Taylor, who is the source. He wrote a song about the increasing dominance of television and the reduction of variety on the radio and used a term he heard from his toddler son in it. The song was called “Radio Ca-Ca.”
Before you stick your hand up, yes, the song was renamed after it was recorded, just before release in 1983, to “Radio Ga Ga.” And that was the source of Lady Gaga’s name.
And our English word gaga, now, where did that come from? Well, from the French, as noted above. And the French – and Portuguese and Spanish? Well, somewhere back along there, people evidently thought of senile old fools as going gagagagaga… not so much agog as just gurgling. It is indeed an almost archetypally incoherent string of sounds, the tongue and lips lax; a single utterance may make gaaah, a classic sound of alarm, dismay, shock, et cetera. And while type faces tend to make a g and a that look like a kneeling girl in a kimono facing a penguin, standard hand printing gives us a gaping jaw on the g and just a round blob with a tail for the a – or the ga together like two eyes above a smiling mouth. Either way, it’s good and gaga.