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Fink, a police informer

Specialists and amateurs have long discussed fink, and the main purpose of today’s post is to tell those who are not versed in etymology what it takes to study the origin of an even recent piece of slang and come away almost empty-handed. Fink, which emerged about a hundred and thirty years ago, surfaced in American English and has American roots. In the linguistic journal Comments on Etymology for May 1, 1988, Archie Green listed thirteen hypotheses purporting to explain the origin, use, and spread of fink. The number thirteen need not surprise anyone: an obscure word tends to attract the ingenuity of specialists and amateurs, and while separating the wheat from the chaff in this mass, one sometimes emerges empty-handed: about everything turns out to be chaff. But such is the lot of the etymologist as winnower: wrong ideas are sometimes easy to discard—it is the right solution that often escapes us.

An etymologist as winnower.
Image by Lorie Shaull via Flickr, CC2.0.

Since the late eighties, two papers on fink have appeared: one by David L. Gold (“The American English Slangism fink Probably Has No Jewish Connection,” 1998), an acrimonious but most useful study, and the other by William Sayers (“The Origin of fink ‘informer, hired strikebreaker’,” 2005; nothing new, can be disregarded). For entertainment’s sake, here are the thirteen hypotheses mentioned above.

1. From Mike Fink, an Ohio Mississippi River boatman (I’ll skip the legends about his treachery, because this is certainly not how our word emerged).

2. From Pinkerton detectives “in setting of assault on steel workers during Homestead strike, 1892.” “When armed Pinkerton guards and strikebreakers approached Carnegie Steel’s Homestead plant, an ensuing battle left a dozen dead and scores of wounded. Foreign-born workers picked up the battle cry ‘Th’ goddam pinks are comin’. Mispronunciation led to ‘goddam finks’.” Gold made a decisive objection to this hypothesis: what foreigners had an accent that required the substitution of f for p? Indeed, the most recent candidates I can think of were Germanic speakers who lived more two thousand years ago (that is why the English cognate of Latin pater is father; the process is known as the First Consonant Shift). The change of Pink to fink in the context we are discussing has no rational explanation. Yet a few sources half-heartedly accept this etymology, probably assuming that some solution is better than the off-putting verdict: “Origin unknown.”

Finks galore
Image by Library of Congress via Picryl. Public domain.

3. Fink is allegedly the ethnic name Finn, pronounced with final k. Obvious nonsense: those finks were not Finns, and whence final k?

4-5. From fenks ~ finks “fibrous parts of whale’s blubber; refuse of reindeer blubber.” Fink “prostitute” (from the sense mentioned above) had some currency in San Francisco, and perhaps it was applied to scabs as a term of disparagement. The derivation sounds sensible, but the path from “hooker” to “strike-breaker; informer” has not been traced, and I find it a bit hard to imagine a situation in which a male person (given the context we are now discussing) would be called a whore, even though offensive words are not particularly gender-specific (for instance, in Shakespeare’s days punk meant “prostitute”) and though terms of abuse easily change their targets. (By the way, note the geographic range: Mike Fink lived in Ohio, the 1892 strike occurred in Pennsylvania, and finks “hookers” flourished in San Francisco.)

6. Eric Partridge derived fink from funk. Many changes occur in unbuttoned speech, but why did the vowel change in funk? The history of funk, punk, and spunk, the words whose history I have once investigated, does not seem to provide any clue to fink.

7-10. Fink has been compared with finger (the reference being to finger “penis”), but no one could explain how finger became fink. In the nineteen-thirties, fink also meant “hobo, tramp,” as well as “non-spender.” Not improbably, the sound complex fink has been coined more than once, and always with derogatory connotations. It would be an exaggeration to say that words ending in –ink usually have a negative sense, but occasionally they do suggest something insignificant or unpleasant, as in stink, blink, chink, wink, shrink, and their likes. Fink has indeed been recorded with the sense “any defective, worthless, or small article of merchandise.” Yet the role of sound symbolism in coining fink would be hard to demonstrate.

11. Fink as an anti-Semitic joke (from a proper name). David L. Gold discussed this etymology in detail and showed that the joke referred to in this context could not result in producing fink “despicable man, cheat,” let alone “strikebreaker,” and that it seems to have emerged too late for the role attributed to it. Fink “scab” surfaced in print in 1892 and must have existed some time earlier (by definition, the first attestation of a word means that it was coined before it appeared in a newspaper or a book), while Jewish jokes about a fink turn up only in the nineteen-twenties. Chronology may not be a decisive argument in this context, but as a general rule, whenever some derogatory word is ascribed to Yiddish or Hebrew, one should be extra careful. It is natural to turn to anti-Semites in looking for the origin of offensive speech, and the solution appears so often to be wrong that all such hypotheses require extra-careful vetting. As Gold says: “Pre-1894 Yiddish influence on American English is unlikely, and none of the Yiddish words is semantically similar to the English one.” The case is closed, I believe.

This is a finch, an innocuous, cleanly bird.
Image by Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons, CC4.0.

12-13. Finch as in bullfinch is a bird name, and the German cognate of finch is Fink. Fink used to mean all kinds of bad things, because the finch is known to peck in horse manure. I may add that many birds do the same (those interested in the subject may consult the entry cushat “wood pigeon” in An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction), but for some reason, finches have been chosen as the main object of disparagement. The alleged path from German Fink to English fink “strikebreaker” is far from straight. We are supposed to assume that the word fink was launched by native speakers of German, familiar with Fink as slang. Though the assumption is not fanciful, this may be all one can say about it. Fink, understood as a borrowing from German, is today the most often cited etymon of the English word.

Archie Green’s long essay reads like a thriller. It recounts the story of how the word fink has been used for a very long time and discusses all the proposed etymologies. At the end of the day, the origin of fink remains undiscovered. Perhaps from German, but why? Green says: “Most likely, a number of ‘origins’ will converge or reinforce each other to cover fresh discoveries.” I am not sure I can share his optimism. There are hundreds of slang words whose origin is hopelessly obscure. A word is coined, becomes common property, and soon no one remembers where and when it came into being. The same also happens to countless stylistically neutral words. To give one example: no one knows for sure the etymology of the word boy. Why should fink be more transparent?

Feature image via Library of Congress. Public domain.  

Recent Comments

  1. Elizabeth Riddle

    Hello Prof. Liberman,
    I’m a (retired) linguistics professor and love your column. It has come in very handy when I’ve taught History of English, but I read it all the time just for its own sake. Anyway, I just wanted to mention that when I was growing up in Freeport, New York (on Long Island) in the 1950’s and early 60’s (later moved nearby to Connecticut), kids used the phrase “you fink” to other kids when that other kid did something that the first did not like, such as while playing a game (or maybe tattling, or grabbing something belonging to the other child and not giving it back right away if I remember correctly). It was similar to calling someone a skunk or a rat, and “ratfink,” was also used. I think we always used these in direct address with “you.” I also recall the fink expressions from TV movies with crooks (not that we were allowed to watch these much). My husband (a former linguist), who grew up in Portland, Oregon says he was aware of the expressions “you fink” and “you ratfink” but did not use them much himself. However, while playing a complicated competitive game with our adult son recently, our son made a play that messed up my husband’s chances, and he jokingly said to our son, “you ratfink,” and another player said “Language, Paul!” also jokingly.

  2. Elizabeth Riddle

    PS. I don’t want to rule out using the” fink” expressions used about a third person–that sounds OK to me–but my memory is of using them with “you.”

  3. J Kossen

    Interesting. In dutch, we use the word ‘luistervink’ (“Listenfinch”?) for someone who is eavesdropping. Might it be related? The word has been in use since at least 1410 according to https://www.etymologiebank.nl/trefwoord/luistervink

    Who knows?

  4. Maxwell Martin

    A “revised and expanded” version of David L. Gold’s article of 1988 appears on pages 77-85 of his Studies in Etymology and Etiology: With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance, and Slavic Languages (2009).

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