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Monthly etymology gleanings for June 2012

By Anatoly Liberman

Many thanks to those who responded to the recent posts on adverbs, spelling, and cool dudes in Australia. I was also grateful for friendly remarks on the Pippi post and the German text of Lindgren Astrid’s book (in German, spunk, the Swedish name of the bug with green wings, as I now know, remained spunk).

Hopefully. With regard to hopefully, I will only add that before writing anything, I always explore the Internet resources. Therefore, I was well aware of the conflicting opinions about this word, but word columnists and bloggers receive the same questions year in, year out, and nowadays the use of hopefully is among the most common topics being discussed. The problem is not worth the passion expended on it. For whatever reason, thousands of people use this adverb sentence initially. If you don’t like it, stay away, but if you are a teacher or an editor, warn your students and authors of possible trouble and let her rip.

Little old lady in tennis shoes, its origin. This is another constantly asked question, but, unlike the previous one, it has never been answered. Many people have pointed out that the phrase, evidently an Americanism, once referred to conservative republican women and doesn’t seem to antedate the sixties of the twentieth century. I have read various explanations, most of which strike me as either inconclusive or fanciful. There indeed was an old woman who lived in a shoe and a famous song about a little old lady from Pasadena. Goody Two-shoes also deserves mention and praise. Women and shoes seem to coexist well in popular culture and folklore, but we need the immediate source of little old lady in tennis shoes and the source remains hidden.

I can only say that if, while in Europe, you meet a woman “doing” London, Paris, Rome, or any other town in her tennis shoes, you may be almost certain that she is an American. Perhaps it occurred to someone that the image of such a person symbolized the best in the indomitable American woman (under certain circumstances, indifference to style and focus on convenience: practical rather than fancy). The phrase might have been coined as a joke, tongue in cheek. If someone has more information, comments are welcome. (But comments are always welcome.) Non-specialists may not realize that the origin of some phrases is even harder to trace than the origin of individual words; yet this is how it is. Not long ago, I was asked about the phrase kick the can down the road. The image is obvious (much more so than in kick the bucket or sow one’s wild oats) and as children most of us did kick cans down the road. Yet who began to say so in politics is unknown. Probably some middle-aged Peter Pan.

Natural wine, the origin of the term. That wine is called natural which is produced without chemical and technological intervention, while organic wine, though made from organically grown grapes, does not preclude such manipulation.

Fair dinkum. Mr. Stephen Goranson sent an interesting message to his colleagues about the early use of fair dinkum. He wonders whether anything is known about this phrase. Of course, nothing is known, but I may perhaps venture a guess. Dink, a northern word, means “neat, nifty.” I suspect that it is related to dick in its multifarious senses (compare dicky bird) “something small.” Forms with “intrusive n” are common. Dinky also means “small, insignificant,” as in dinkey “small locomotive.” Dinkum looks like a pseudo-Latinism of the same type as conundrum and especially tantrum and is probably a close relative of thingum ~ thingumbob ~ thingummy and the rest. It sounds like a vulgar pronunciation of thing and means something like “the real thing,” though it may degenerate into a meaningless tag.

His or her. It is always amusing to discover that our very modern worries are as old as the hills. The hill I have recently climbed was erected in 1900. Mr. C.L.F. began his letter to The Nation (29 March 1900) so: “This is what we are coming to, now that women are taking an active part in all sorts of organizations, Municipal Art Leagues and the like: ‘The President shall have power to drop from the roll of membership the name of any member who may fail to pay …his or her dues, after he or she has, in his or her judgment, been properly notified,’ etc.” This is followed by the suggestion to introduce into English some pronoun that would spare the writer the necessity of using he or she.

By now articles and books have been written on the subject. Mr. (I assume Mr.) C.L.F. proposed the use of it. Several responses picked up where he left off. In the first of them, a point was made that in at least one German dialect jedermann “everyone” can be referred to as es, a neuter pronoun. Another correspondent cited the ingenious coinages going back to the sixties of the nineteenth century: heesh “he or she,” hizzer “his or her,” and himmer “him or her.” Mrs. C. Crozat Converse recommended the use of the neologism thon. The most interesting part of that letter is the writer’s name. In 1858 the young Charles Crozat Converse (1832-1918), an attorney and song writer, coined the word thon, which won the approval of some authorities but never caught on (sorry: the rhyme is unintentional). Converse must have delegated the writing of the letter to his wife.

On Promiscuity and Grammar: ‘Scuse,’ said the Elephant’s Child most politely, ‘but have you seen such a thing as a Crocodile in these promiscuous parts?’

Thon is a blend of that and one. Converse may not have known that in Scots thon means “that yonder.” Still later Mr. C. Alphonso Smith quoted A Midsummer Night’s Dream (II, 1, 170-172): “The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid/ Will make or man or woman madly dote/ Upon the next live creature that it sees.” The occurrence of this epicene pronoun has been duly noted by the authors of books on Shakespeare’s grammar. What a pity that we did not follow that usage! Imagine: “When a student comes, I never make it wait: its time is precious,” “It who thinks that it is a journalist only because it has a camera and a tape recorder will soon change its views.” After all, don’t we call the leader in a game It?

Water and unconscious humor. “Global leaders at the three-day U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development approved a plan to bring clean water, sanitation and energy to the world’s poor without further degrading the planet. The agreement was widely criticized for its watered-down ambitions….”

We the father. From the NYT (“New Paternity Tests Work Early in Pregnancy”): “Men who clearly know they are the father might be more willing to support the woman financially and emotionally during the pregnancy, which some studies suggest might lead to healthier babies.” The problem is that some women sleep with so many men that they have no way of finding out whose fetus they are carrying. The baby, it transpires, will be happy not to be an offspring of multiple fathers. Our writers on sociolinguistics seem to have missed a chapter with the provisional title “Grammar and Promiscuity.”

Read the next “gleanings” on August 29.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    As your paternity example shows, singular they signals indefiniteness, not lack of knowledge about gender. Though the former often entails the latter, this is one of the cases where it does not.

  2. Alice Northover

    I thought I’d add a Twitter conversation on “fair dinkum” this article spawned to the comments:

    This is dinky! RT @OUPAcademic What is the origin of “fair dinkum”? http://oxford.ly/LpX7hp [@matthue to @davidwerdiger @H_in_London @ittaroth]

    wiki it! what do you i know? it means honest… syn true blue! [@ittaroth to @matthue @davidwerdiger @H_in_London @OUPAcademic]

    apparently fair dinkum comes from Chinese words used on the goldfields. din gum = real gold. [@H_in_London to @ittaroth @matthue @davidwerdiger @oupacademic]

    that sounds familiar… at least someone was paying attention in history class. [@ittaroth to @H_in_London @matthue @davidwerdiger @oupacademic]

    dinkum comes from English Midlands & meant work. “Fair dinkum” = fair day’s work = fair play [@davidwerdiger to @ittaroth @H_in_London @matthue @oupacademic]

    Only in my family-in-law would four dift people try to second-guess the OED. Love youall! [@matthue to @davidwerdiger @ittaroth @H_in_London @OUPAcademic]

    I’ll add this info to the blog post and see if we can have Anatoly (he’s not OED) investigate [@OUPAcademic to @matthue @davidwerdiger @ittaroth @H_in_London]


    And another comment on “thon”:

    Seems to be a popular member of the vocabulary in Northern Ireland already! Quite sure Scotland uses it a lot, too… [@lois_bennett to @OUPAcademic]


    Alice, OUPblog Editor

  3. Stephen Goranson

    “Origin unknown” for “fair dinkum,” according to OED–and to me too. Here area few notes, questions, and some antedatings. Since it appears in the English Dialect Dictionary (and others) and was known at about the same time in Australian writing, some proposed it originated in England but became popular in Australia. The movement of people was more in that direction than the reverse. (The collocation left little or no trace in 19th-century US.) But, as far as I know, the earliest secure attestations are in Australia, which do not prove it started there, but might at least keep the question open.

    Since it is an obvious place to look, I may not be the first to find uses in Trove, the Australian newspaper database. The following 1879 use may be written up somewhere, but isn’t in OED, the Australian National Dictionary, etc. I haven’t checked Butler’s Dinkum Dictionary 3rd ed., etc. (anyone care to?). Notes & Queries 1905 has a late note with a claim to have heard “fair dinkum” from a Lincolnshire farmer in 1848-9–but that claim was made over fifty years later, so is somewhat iffy.

    Australian Town and Country Journal (New South Wales) Saturday 30 August 1879 p 33:
    … Morning Gallops. The work on Randwick last Saturday was almost of a purely sensational nature, and everything that put in an appearance did really serviceable work. The following are the principal items :- Mabel, the up-country mare, was sent what is known as “fair dinkum”…. [sent by heart, grace, or the jockey?]

    Several other appearances follow (e.g., a horse, Blue, “doing the fair ‘dinkum'” in Jan 1880; the early uses appear on the sports pages, in rowing, for example). Besides the already-known variant spelling dincum, we may note a goofy Nov. 1898 retelling in which Moses asks “Straight dingkum?” In the likely not really related but I’ll mention anyway department, HathiTrust has an 1830 text, Humane Policy: Or, Justice to the Aborigines of New Settlements Essential….by Saxe Bannister (p. lxxxii), which tells of a chief named Dingum, in New South Wales, a name said to be “nearly equivalent” to “‘I of myself’ or ‘I am’.”

    Also of doubtful relevance is the 1862 Copperhead (“peace Democrat,” pro-slavery) poem (in the Ohio newspaper The Crisis June 18 and reprinted in other papers and in 1863 Copperhead Minstrel) in which “Dinkum Darkey” takes a room in Uncle Sam’s hotel, at the expense of whites. An earlier racist song oddly mixes anti-black and anti-Chinese words, calling the latter “din cum darkey.” (See: Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music…2005 p. 42.) An Alabama folksong includes “hi yo dinkum darkey”; a Haiti folksong chorus has “Hi-o-dinkum darky.”

    One folk etymology claims Chinese spoke (in Cantonese) of din kum, good gold, during an Australian gold rush. Among other probable nonsense coincidences are sing-song syllables (though dinkum could turn out to be fake Latin?), e.g. the Dec. 9, 1876 Once a Week story: “When I carry grog bottle, um allus seem to laugh inside, and go dinkum, dinkum, ’till I ‘bliged to pull de cork out and smell um, and den I taste, an’ him all
    ober wid me.”

    The English Midlands (especially Lincolnshire) and Australia (especially New South Wales) are the areas where “fair dinkum” is earliest attested (so far).

    1881 North Lincolnshire Words p.117 (series C 26) : Fair-dinkum, that which is just and equitable
    1882 Nottingham Evening Post 23 Feb p. 2 Lincoln Conservating Club.”… be: fair dinkum to all classes of people. Now they in Lincoln knew there had been some very strong prosecutions of people who had in neighbouring town indulged … ?

    1848 Fri 14 Sept Lincolnshire Chronicle p. 5 col. 5: “ George Smith, alias Dinkum Smith, a notorious thief, who has been for a long time the very dread of the neighbourhood of Rasen, was last week apprehended by Superintendent Forck … ”
    I wonder why he took, or was given, the name Dinkum. Any suggestions?

    Thomas Alexander Browne, alias Rolf Boldrewood, wrote Robbery Under Arms. 1888, cited in OED. It had already been serialized in 1882-3 in Sydney Mail. “It took us an hour’s hard dinkum to get near the peak.” Dinkum there means work, and it surely does not support the “good gold, din kum,” folk etmology–especially since Browne was a gold commissioner since 1876. He had arrived in Sydney in 1831 (at age 5).
    Fair dinkum?

  4. […] Natural and organic once more. Some people say that only products like gas and coal (as opposed to wine) can be called natural. This is a reasonable idea, but the fact remains that some wines have been called natural for a long time. The OED (natural 7a) says: […]

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