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“Rootin tootin” is a whimsical American expression that means causing a ruckus or, more generally, exciting. It originated in 19th-century America, ostensibly in the Old West; its archaic nature is part of its charm. Although it has its roots in more common phrases, its use is generally limited to references to cowboy culture. Like “pardner” and “buckaroo,” its most common modern use is by someone trying to imitate a cowboy dialect, for humor or to create a theme.
The phrase “rootin tootin” is first recorded on paper in 1875, but may have been used as a colloquial expression for years before that. It seems to derive from the phrase “root,” meaning to cheer, which originated around the same time. The “toot” part of the phrase may refer to a similar saying, “to toot your own horn.” Both terms refer to loud, boisterous noise; hence “rootin tootin.” Alternatively, “tootin” may have been added just to make an amusing rhyme, a process language experts call reduplication.
Like many examples of frontier slang, “rootin tootin” was popularized by the Western movies of the early 20th century. Its amusing, archaic sound made even its description of rambunctious horseplay seem harmless. This made it ideal for singing cowboy Westerns, a popular sub-genre of the 1930s that used standard Western plots to present musical numbers. Popular singing cowboys included the Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry, who starred in Rootin’ Tootin’ Rhythm in 1937.
The singing cowboys of the 1930s and ‘40s paved the way for the family-friendly television cowboys of the 1950s. These clean, well-dressed heroes would have been nearly unrecognizable to the frontier settlers of the previous century. A 2011 search of the Internet Movie Database turned up nearly a dozen uses of “rootin tootin” in dialogue, all from TV and movies of the mid-20th century. It is likely that the phrase was used more in those decades than it ever was by the actual cowboys and settlers of the Old West.
In the 21st century, “rootin tootin” is still in use in American English, with the same limited applications. It has become virtual shorthand to denote the use of a cowboy theme for a party, sale, or event. It can also be used ironically, when an activity fails to create sufficient excitement. The enduring popularity of country music and cowboy culture suggest that the phrase will continue to resurface in the future to describe activities that are rambunctious yet somehow safe at the same time.