Word Histories

Etymologies derived from the files of The Dictionary of American Regional English


bogey, jink

“Okay, bogeys have jinked back at me again for the fifth time.” Those words were picked up last January by the cockpit recorder of an American pilot just before he shot down a Libyan MiG fighter over international waters in the Mediterranean. As Air Force jargon, both bogey (an enemy aircraft) and jink (to make a quick evasive turn) go back to the Second World War, but both words also enjoy long Scottish pedigrees. Bogeys (ghosts, goblins, specters) have been jinking around in Scotland since at least the sixteenth century, when they were more commonly known as boggles (“Auld folks wha liv’d in days o’ yore, / Could nightly tell us tales galore, / ‘Bout warlocks, witches, brownies, boggles”— Alexander Scott, Poems, 1826). Before that they were called bugs or bugges. When bug came to refer to an insect, its ghostly meaning was exorcised. It haunts modern English only in the word bugbear. The use of bogeys as a term for enemy aircraft—perhaps because of their spectral look when seen approaching from a distance— originated in the Royal Air Force and was adopted by American pilots. Jink has a less ethereal origin in Scottish English of the eighteenth century, when it was used pretty much the way the pilot used it, and meant “to move or dart with sudden turns” (“He came jinking over Bowden moor with daughters and ponies and God knows what” — Sir Walter Scott, Letters, 1819). It is probably onomatopoeic in its genesis. Though in America the verb is primarily pilots’ jargon, the noun is widely known in high jinks. In Scotland high jinks was the name of various drinking games (“The revel had lasted since four o’clock, and, at length . . . the frolicsome company had begun to practise the ancient and now forgotten pastime of high jinks” —Sir Walter Scott, Guy Mannering, 1815).


The term tabloid television is being heard and seen with increasing frequency these days, owing to the proliferation of network and syndicated “news” shows like Geraldo, Inside Edition, Crimewatch Tonight, and The Reporters. Although tabloid television may be hard to swallow, the word tabloid itself originally referred to a kind of pill whose contents were compressed and concentrated and relatively easy to digest. Tabloids were first manufactured by Burroughs, Wellcome & Co; the company registered the term in 1884, apparently having coined it from tabl-, as in tablet (from the French tablette, the diminutive of table) and -oid (ultimately from the Greek eidos, meaning “form, shape, kind”). Like the trade names Xerox and Kleenex, Tabloid was almost immediately adopted into the spoken language despite legal efforts by the company to restrict its use. The 1894 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in India, for example, recommended taking “plenty of quinine in 2 or 4 grain ‘tabloids’. . . .” One of the first people to use tabloid in a journalistic sense was Alfred Harmsworth, the first Viscount Northcliffe (1865—1922), who acquired and reorganized several well-known newspapers in England around the turn of the century. One of his innovations was to present the news in what he called tabloid form — that is, condensed for busy businessmen and in a smaller format. Harmsworth’s tabloid newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, were half-penny morning papers.


Last spring, when the investigation of the Iran-contra affair by a special prosecutor was in full swing, the Reagan Administration assembled a team of six high-ranking officials who were untainted by the scandal to make recommendations about the withholding of secret documents that might be requested by the prosecution in the trial of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. Earlier this year two of the central charges against North were dropped because so many documents had been withheld. An administration official defended the work of the six-man committee, saying that its members had been carefully chosen “so people couldn’t say it was a bunch of White House toadies, former friends of Ollie North” slinking around. A toady, one who is known for his fawning, sycophantic behavior, was originally called a toad-eater and ate toads for a living (“I inquired of him if William Utting the toade-eater . . . did not once keepe at Laxfield; he tould me yes, and said he had seene him eate a toade, nay two”—J. Rous, Diary, 1629). A toad-eater was typically in the employ of a charlatan who sold nostrums that were said to be so powerful and universal that they could even act as antidotes to a dread poison allegedly found in toads. To prove the efficacy of his cureall, the charlatan would compel his obsequious assistant to eat a toad (or to pretend to eat one). The toad-eater would then feign convulsions and death, whereupon his master would administer a swig of the elixir and restore the toad-eater to health.