Dear Word Detective: I come from Scotland but now live in the U.S. I was playing a Scrabble game and used the word “bing” but it was not in the Scrabble dictionary. I am sure my husband used it when talking about the coal mines. Maybe it was slang. Any help you can give me will be much appreciated. — Sophie Murray.
Oh boy, Scrabble. I love word games. Wait, no, sorry, I just remembered that I actually hate word games. The rub is that people naturally assume that I must be very good at word games, which I am not. Perhaps I could be if I tried, but I don’t plan to try. I’m with grammarian Geoffrey Pullum when he says, “The expressive power of human language is barely adequate to convey the profound level of apathy word puzzles provoke in me.” (You can read his entire rant, which I heartily recommend, here).
I’m not sure who concocts Scrabble dictionaries or what criteria they use when admitting words to their hallowed roster, but for my money they blew it in the case of “bing.” It is, as the Simpsons would say, a perfectly cromulent word.
“Bing” first appeared in English in the early 16th century meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “A heap or pile: formerly of stones, earth, trees, dead bodies, as well as of corn, potatoes, and the like.” Although that general meaning is still in use in dialects of northern England, by around 1815, “bing” had acquired the specific meaning of “a heap of metallic, especially lead, ore” or alum ore, which explains how you husband came to mention it in connection with mines. “Bing,” since the late 17th century, had also been applied to the best, richest ores (“bing ore”). The root of “bing” in English is the Old Norse word “bing,” meaning simply “heap.”
One wonders, incidentally, when “cromulent” will make it into dictionaries. To quote Wikipedia on the term’s origins on The Simpsons, “When schoolteacher Edna Krabappel hears the Springfield town motto, ‘A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man,’ she comments she’d never heard of the word ’embiggens’ before moving to Springfield. Miss Hoover, another teacher, replies, ‘I don’t know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word’.”