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shameless pleading

Jinks, High Jinks, Jinx

Birds not of a feather.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “jink” and “jinks”? Are they related? — Bill Billings.

Hmm. In reading your question, I realized that I’m not entirely certain whether you’re asking about “jinks” as in “high jinks” (sometimes spelled “hijinks”) or “jinx” in the sense of “enduring curse.” So, to be on the safe side, we’ll take a look at “jink,” “jinks” and “jinx.” You know, it just occurred to me that we’d be in serious trouble if this column were operating on one of those obnoxious “voice recognition” customer service systems (“OK, you’re asking about “rink” and “fink,” correct?”).

It’s probably easiest to begin with “jink,” which first appeared in Scots dialect in the 18th century as a verb meaning “to move with a sudden quick motion,” specifically “to wheel or fling about while dancing.” The origin of “jink” is thought to be onomatopoeic or “echoic,” meaning that the sound of the word itself is evocative of the quick, sharp action of “jinking.” Today “jink” as a verb is used to mean “to make a quick evasive move; to dodge a pursuer,” and is used primarily in sports (particularly rugby) and aeronautics, where a fighter pilot may “jink” (turn suddenly) to throw off a pursuing aircraft.

The “jinks” in “high jinks,” meaning “playful, rowdy activity” or “disruptive pranks or unruly behavior” comes from a slightly different Scots dialect sense of “jink” as a noun meaning “game” or “prank.” Apparently “high jinks” in the 16th century was a drinking game (at the time also known as “high pranks”) in which the loser in a throw of dice had to perform a silly task (or drink a certain quantity of alcohol). By the mid-19th century, “high jinks” in standard English had come to mean “lively merrymaking” and “boisterous pranks” in general.

After tracing that convoluted evolutionary path of “jinks,” it’s a relief to report that “jinx,” meaning “curse or spell,” is a completely unrelated word with no connection to “jink.” As a matter of fact, “jinx,” which first appeared in American English in 1911, is actually a misspelling of the much older word “jynx,” which dates back to the 1600s (and is rooted in the Greek “iynx”). This older form “jynx” was another name for a kind of European woodpecker also known as a “wryneck” for its habit of twisting its head around when disturbed.

While the sight of a bird doing a head-spinning routine reminiscent of “The Exorcist” was, no doubt, a bit spooky, the connection of “jynx” to “curse” is a bit more indirect. In the 17th century, the feathers of the jynx were though to be a vital component of the charms and spells concocted by witches, so “jynx” (and later “jinx”) became a synonym for “spell” or “curse,” and “jinx” as a verb came to mean to curse with bad luck (“What do you mean humming love songs when their darn pitcher is forcing in runs? You jinxed my ball club,” 1917).

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