"Jinx" etymology #1 (not TOO long)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Sat Jan 10 05:52:19 UTC 2004

The word "jinx" in its sense "carrier of bad luck" (opposite of "mascot" =
"carrier of good luck") is of obscure origin. The first examples of which
I'm aware are from the comic strip "A. Mutt", 1908 (cited in HDAS).

The OED shows this "jinx" derived from "jynx" (a bird, also [rarely and
long ago apparently] a magical charm). I have noted before on this list
that I could not find any indication of the currency of this word in the
period of interest (1870-1910, say). I still can't find any. Surely this
origin is extremely unlikely? Even to the extent that "jynx" = "charm",
doesn't it tend to refer to a love charm rather than a curse?

My esteemed colleagues G. Cohen and B. Popik have favored an origin from a
poem back around 1860, which we've discussed on this list ... in which the
surname Jinks appears along with a "devil" (a printer's devil, not a 'real'
devil), hypothetically providing the basis for a general connection of the
surname Jinks with devilishness or misfortune (as I understand the
argument). I've noted on this list that I do not believe such a connection
ever existed. I quoted Ware (1909) earlier regarding "Jinks the barber."
Now I add this quotation from Chesterton:


G. K. Chesterton, _The Man Who Knew Too Much_ (1922) (Project Gutenberg):

<<Names like Tompkins and Jenkins and Jinks are funny without being vulgar;
I mean they are vulgar without being common. If you prefer it, they are
commonplace without being common. They are just the names to be chosen to
LOOK ordinary, but they're really rather extraordinary. Do you know many
people called Tompkins? It's a good deal rarer than Talbot.>>


"Jinks" is a name associated with (if anything) ordinariness. If 1922 is
too late, consider this from a fictional work a little earlier:


John Carboy, _Life in New York!_ (1872): p. 17:

[Harry meets some attractive women]

<<Harry had never seen anything so brilliant, and when Tom presented him to
the gushing Lydia and the other divinities it seemed as though the measure
of his bliss was full to the brim. What a shame it was that they should
choose to be known as Brown, Jinks, Jones, and Smith, when in reality they
were well nigh equal to angels of the first water.>>


"Jinks" appears here with other archetypically bland and prosaic names. [I
wonder: was Jinks was a more common surname 150-200 years ago than it is now?]

The online Wright American Fiction database (1851-1875) shows, at a glance,
14 different works containing characters named Jinks (not including
references to the song "Captain Jinks"). At a glance, none of them has any
diabolic or occult connection: they are ordinary.

[Of course this does not exclude the surname from consideration as the
ancestor. By analogy, probably "jones" = "heroin addiction" comes from the
surname "Jones" in _some_ context ... but the name Jones by itself does not
generally connote addiction, and never did IMHO.]

I consider an origin from the "Captain Jinks" song itself superficially
_extremely_ implausible. Captain Jinks was a military buffoon, not a Jonah.

Aside from the surname, two other "jinks" words were current in the period
of interest: (1) the interjection "by jinks" (with occasional variants such
as "great jinks") (in which I believe "jinks" is functionally a euphemism
for "Jesus" and etymologically probably equivalent to "jingo[es]" and
"jing[s]"); (2) "jinks" meaning "pranks"/"frivolities"/"festivities"
(occasionally construed as a singular), now usually seen only in "high
jinks". It is the surname which most often had the spelling with "x", FWIW.

So whence "jinx"? [I have a likely answer.]

-- Doug Wilson

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