Gin up

How to make your horse hate you.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m supposed to be balancing my checkbook, but instead I was reading through frivolous news and blogs this evening.  Again, today, President Obama used the expression “ginned up” to describe the perhaps made-up hysteria of politicians, media, and the like about the latest topics of discussion proposed by his administration.  He has used this a few times over the past few months and each time, I have thought (and then forgot) to look it up.  I finally did — and confirmed my interpretation of what he means by it.  However, there are a few different theories as to the origin of this expression: 1) derived from “ginger up,” relating to spicing something up (including a horse’s tail!); or 2) derived from “engined up” as if powered up by something.  What is your take on this (re)addition to the political lexicon? — Jenny Nunemacher.

I know what you mean — I too routinely make a mental note to look something up online when I get get home and get the chance, but then promptly forget to do so, often forever.  I suppose I could get one of those cell phones that also has a web browser, but I hate telephones.  Yesterday I discovered that our ancient cell phone (which we keep in the car) somehow became set, at least three years ago, to not accept incoming calls.  Awesome.  I’m leaving it that way.

I had noticed President Obama’s use of “gin up” to mean “agitate or excite,” usually by means of a phony or exaggerated controversy, during the campaign last year, and he seems to have singlehandedly revived this fine old Americanism.  “Gin up” has never fallen entirely out of use since it first appeared in the 19th century.  But the phrase has definitely stepped back into the limelight of late, including in an odd sentence in the Wall Street Journal recently that embedded it in an especially garbled example of what grammarians call over-negation: “Can you really hope to gin up a red scare without almost no reds?”  Um, no?

In its original sense, “to gin up” meant simply “to excite, to make lively,” although today there is almost always an implication that the premise of the excitement is fabricated or “cooked up.”  There are, as you found, two main theories as to the origins of “gin up.”  Neither of them has any connection, by the way, to “gin” the liquor, which comes from the Dutch word for “juniper,” used to flavor the drink.

The first traces “gin up” to the noun “gin,” a short form of “engine,” which originally simply meant “intelligence or inventiveness” (from the Latin “ingenium,” which also gave us “ingenuity”).  “Engine” in the derivative sense of “machine,” a product of such inventiveness, dates back to the 14th century.  The shortened form “gin” has meant “skill or ingenuity” since the 13th century when “to gin” was also used to mean “to start up or begin.”  It is possible that “gin up” in the sense of “create excitement” comes from this “start” sense.  It is also possible that “gin up” was inspired by the “cotton gin” (short for “cotton engine”), a machine used to remove the seeds from cotton in the American South in the 19th century.  As of 1887, “to gin” meant “to work hard” or “make things hum” like a cotton gin in operation.

The other theory of “gin up” traces it to the application of ginger (the spice) to the posteriors of horses in order to make them appear livelier to a prospective purchaser or to run faster in a race.  Such “gingering” was apparently widespread at one time.  That sounds to me like a prescription for getting yourself kicked, but the Oxford English Dictionary likes this theory.  Personally, I lean more toward the “gin” in the “create or start up” sense as the root of “gin up.”

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