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The meaning and origin of the expression: Oompa Loompa

Oompa Loompa

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Oompa Loompa'?

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'Oompa Loompa' is the name Roald Dahl used for the group of diminutive factory workers in the 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

More recently, it has also been used more generally as a disparaging name for anyone of small stature or orange tinted skin.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Oompa Loompa'?

Oompa Loompa follows in the a dubious tradition in the use of language by white westerners. Over many years, when encountering people or ideas that were foreign and deemed to be uncivilised, the tendency has been to give them demeaning and childish sing-song names. For example, other reduplicated expressions fuzzy-wuzzy, mumbo-jumbo and hubble-bubble and so on.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Oompa Loompa'?Oompa Loompa as a name might have gone unnoticed but for the fact that, in the original book, they were a group of black pygmies captured in Africa by Willy Wonka and brought back to work unpaid in the chocolate factory. The US National Association for the Advancement of Colored People criticised the obvious overtones of slavery, noting that the language and imagery in the book came only a year after Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech.

Dahl certainly had the background of someone who might harbour racially stereotypical thought. He was a Wing Commander in the RAF and had been brought up in the era of British imperial rule in Africa.

To be fair to Dahl, I have no idea what his private thoughts on race were. Anti-immigrant feeling was rife in England at that time. Only a year earlier a conservative MP had been elected in my home town of Smethwick with the slogan "If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour". What was considered acceptable language in Smethwick probably went just as well in the deeply conservative (and virtually 100% white) rural Buckinghamshire where Dahl lived.

Dahl denied any conscious racism and sympathised with the NAACP's case. A later version of the book depicted the Oompa Loompas as dwarfish hippies with 'golden–brown hair' and 'rosy–white' skin coming from, not Africa, but Loompaland.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Oompa Loompa'?The 1971 film, made in America, did away with allusions to race altogether by showing the Oompa Loompas with orange skin and green hair.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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