I’m not the superstitious sort. Really, I’m not. But sometimes …
I should have known I was jinxing myself a couple of weeks ago when I said in my column that my health was good. Wouldn’t you know it, the flu saw that as a challenge. Luckily, I’d had a flu shot in November, so the actual duration of flu symptoms was only a few days. After that, it became the return of the cold from hell that I’d finally almost recovered from.
I just can’t win for sneezing.
So yeah, last week I wasn’t so much playing in the mud (though I did a little) as I was helping the bottom line of the companies that make Puffs Plus, Halls and assorted cold remedies. You’re welcome, shareholders. I do what I can.
And in the midst of all that sneezing, coughing and nose-blowing, I still found a way to be word-nerdy in wondering just where “jinx”—a person, thing or influence that brings bad luck, or the act of doing so—originated.
Not even illness can ward off my nerdiness. To be honest, not much can.
If you’re familiar with the stories that attribute jinx to the Wryneck bird (Latin spelling jynx … and it’s a creepy bird if you think about it, what with that head-twisting thing it does) supposedly used in witchcraft and divination, or to a charm or spell, well, hold that thought because it’s not that clear-cut.
For Americans, a jinx is often thought of in terms of baseball (oh, the poor Cubbies and their curse), and many of the early citations in the American press, like one in 1904 bemoaning the batting of the Los Angeles baseball club, had it spelled “jinks,” according to the World Wide Words blog. By the time the first decade of the 20th century was over, it had moved to the modern spelling, such as in the 1910 book The Jinx: Stories of the Diamond by Allen Sangree.
World Wide Words says the idea of the American form of “jinx” being based on the bird has two big holes: “The Wryneck is not a North American bird and the word jynx for it was scholarly and uncommon. Appropriate though it was, it would be surprising to learn American sportsmen seized upon it.” It’s not like the Internet and social media were around then, so it took longer for some things to travel.
Etymologist Barry Popik suggests instead that it could have come from “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines,” an American vaudeville song in the 1860s about a buffoonish, unsuccessful soldier, which soon became a barroom staple. The character later appeared in a play starring Ethel Barrymore, and in a satiric novel. According to Wordorigins.org, Popik and Gerald Cohen also found a spoof of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” called “More Copy,” published in 1859 in The Printer, with the character of “Jinks” in place of the raven, acting as a messenger between an editor and reporter:
Once in August, wet and dreary,
Sat this writer weak and weary,
Pondering o’er a memorandum book of items used before—
Book of scrawling headnotes, rather
Items taking days to gather
Them in hot and sultry weather,
(Using up much time and leather,)
Pondered we these items o’er.
While we conned them slowly rocking
(Through our mind queer ideas ﬂocking),
Came a quick and nervous knocking
Knocking at the sanctum door,
“Sure, that must be Jinks,” we muttered—
“Jinks that’s knocking at our door;
“Jinks, the everlasting bore.”
“‘Now it’s time you were departing,
You scamp!” cried we, upstarting;
Get you back into the office—office where you were before—
Or the words that you have spoken
Will get your bones all broken”
(And we seized a cudgel, oaken, that was lying on the ﬂoor).
“Take your hands out of your pockets,
And leave the sanctum door;
“Tell the foreman there’s no copy,
You ugly little bore.
“Quoth our devil, ‘send him more’.”
Douglas Wilson found what appears to be widely considered as the most probable source for “jinx” as it is known in America. In 1887, a musical comedy called Little Puck was written by Archibald Clavering Gunter, Fred Maeder, Robert Fraser and Howard P. Taylor, partially based on F. Anstey’s—the name Thomas Anstey Guthrie used when writing comic novels—Vice Versa (the basis for at least four movies in the 20th century, including the one in 1988 starring Arkie-by-marriage Judge Reinhold).
World Wide Words says that in writing the play, “the authors took many liberties with the book, amalgamating its plot with that of a later Anstey work, A Fallen Idol, and introducing additional characters, in particular one to whom they gave the name Jinks Hoodoo, described as ‘a curse to everybody, including himself.’ Hoodoo, a variation of voodoo, is recorded from the early 1880s in the sense of a person or thing that’s supposed to bring bad luck. At this time, Jinks—not an uncommon first name, nickname or family name—didn’t have such associations.”
After that, it soon became common to describe someone who brings bad luck as Jinks Hoodoo, or as it began to be shortened in the press mostly in relation to baseball, “jinks,” and then “jinx.” (There’s an interesting extended discussion on “jinx” on the linguist listserv that brings in a link between baseball and the poem.)
Annnnd that’s about the extent of my interest in baseball most days.
Sure, there will always be people who stick solely to the bird theory on jinx, but they’re overlooking a significant portion of its etymology. That’s the beauty of a language that evolves. Words and their meanings often have multiple influences from worlds as diverse as popular culture and scientific study, and that’s something that word nerds like me enjoy.
Sometimes, though, misuse of words ends up changing meanings, such as with “enormity,” which once meant horrific or monstrous, but now is used often as a synonym for huge. For the purists among us, that’s a high crime (not to be confused with high jinks). Still, it’s part of evolution, and the transition itself can be fascinating.
Yes, I get excited about this stuff. No, I’m not in need of other things to distract me.
I do, however, need another tissue, thank you very much.
And chocolate. Chocolate would be good.