Dear Word Detective: Shortly after the birth of my nephew, my sister-in-law informed the family that she did not want his pacifier to be referred to as a “binky.” That got me wondering where the term came from in the first place and then how it became a common term for a baby’s pacifier. — J. Smith.

Hmmph. Kids are hopelessly spoiled these days. When I was an infant, we didn’t have any fancy-schmanzy “pacifiers.” If we wanted something to gnaw on, we got off our duffs and found a nice twig, and we turned out just fine. Besides, last time I checked, the human hand comes with a dandy built-in pacifier. I still use mine at tax time.

I am intrigued as to why your sis-in-law doesn’t want people calling her sprog’s pacifier a “binky.” If it’s because she finds the term insufferably cutesy and cloying, I’m with her all the way.

The pacifier in its modern form of a plastic or rubber nipple attached to a ring or shield (to prevent the child from swallowing the gizmo) dates to the early 20th century, but the use of similar devices to calm an upset infant is probably as old as upset infants themselves. Evidently in the 19th century it was common practice to give the child a ball of linen cloth wrapped around a lump of sugar or, a bit disturbingly, meat or fat, sometimes soaked in brandy. According to Wikipedia, teething toys in 17th century England were often made of coral. Yum.

I was surprised to learn that “Binky” is actually a trademarked term owned by Playtex, which registered it in 1935. But as a generic term for the device, “binky” is substantially older, and the word “binky” itself has a history apart from pacifiers. The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) lists “binky” as a folk term used in western Indiana as of 1912 to mean “any little mechanical contrivance,” and the word seems to have been in use for many years as a name for anything small and either inconsequential or cute. “Binky” is, for instance, popular as both a name for small dogs and a jocular nickname for men.

So, does “binky” actually mean anything? My guess is no. There is a Scots dialect word “bink” meaning “bench” or “shelf,” but I can’t imagine a connection to the way “binky” is used today. My guess is that “binky” is an onomatopoeic formation, a word whose sound conjures up a mental image, in this case of something small, not terribly important, but fun to have around.

10 comments on this post.
  1. Nancy:

    The term “soother” was what a pacifer was called where I come from.

  2. Catherine:

    My brother named me – a girl – Binky in 1949. He was 2 years old. No one knows where he got it. Close family and old friends still call me Binky at 60 years old. A customer of mine tells me that in Dutch – Binky means “big baby” and his Mother has been called Binky for all of her 84 years.
    In Old English it comes from the name Bancroft which means “field of beans”. It is a boy’s name. Go figure.

  3. Mary Johnson:

    The term “binky” is well known to rabbit owners. A rabbit binky is where they hurl themselve in the air, twisting and turning. A search of rabbit binkies on youtube will give you many examples. How did this originate?

  4. Susan:

    Where I come from a binky is a baby’s favorite blanket and a pacifier is a fooler. Interesting read.

  5. Sue:

    As a tiny child I called woodlice Binkies. No-one in the family knows why but a woodlouse has been a Binky in my family ever since and it was a long time until I realised no-one else did this.

  6. Natasha:

    Wow! Thanks so thorough

  7. David:

    The mysterious grapevine for these things long ago revealed to me a usage going back to Edwardian times at least, for an as yet unnamed child to be referred to generically as Bunty if a girl (or thought to be one, if unborn) and Binky or Binks if a boy. There must be many literary examples. One of note is in the children’s novels of Antonia Forest, mainly with girls’ school settings. There are some set in the holidays in which a brother Peter in the girls’ family features, and he has retained the Binks nickname.

  8. Barbara Newton -Legge:

    53 yrs ago as an 8yr old I had a black and white rabbit I called it binky and none of my 4 siblings or my parents knew where I got the name !!!

  9. Bill:

    ‘Binky’ was/is a registered product trademark of Playtex Corporation who manufactured all kinds of both pre and post-natal products in the USA. I remember when they brought my oldest nephew home as a baby from the hospital in 1965, he had a pacifier that plainly had ‘Binky’ stamped on it. It is a brand name in this country. I think the sister-in-law is being an overly sensitive brat.

  10. Jay Hubbard:

    This came up in a Microsoft Rewards quiz today, and the ‘lexicon archaeologist’ in me was activated! I dug up this article … of which I’ve only read a little (about ‘the full binky vs. the half binky’ LoL)

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