Hello, I must be going.
Dear Word Detective: Once again I have used a phrase that caused my children to look at me and say, “What?” I was saying that we never left a party during the “shank of the evening.” To me, this has always meant the time when the party was at its best with the most fun being had by all. Now I am curious to know, (1) if I am correct, and (2) how this expression came about. Any explanation from you will be immediately forwarded to my kids! — Marsha.
Hey, I’m with your kids on this one: Huh? I don’t recall ever hearing “shank of the evening” until I read your question, although I could be wrong, because my memory seems to be shot. I blame the internet. After all, if you can look up the lyrics to the theme from “Mister Ed” in three seconds, what’s the point of even trying to remember the name of that kid in third grade who bit you on the leg at recess? Just put up a Facebook page and he’ll find you. My mind is starting to resemble a vacant lot full of big rocks. I just hope my car keys are under one of them.
Fortunately, many other people have heard the expression “shank of the evening.” Unfortunately, they seem unable to agree on exactly what it means.
“Shank” itself is a very old English word, derived from Germanic roots, that initially meant “the part of the leg of an animal between the knee and the ankle” or a similar section of the leg of an animal that lacks ankles. “Shank” has also been used throughout its history to mean simply “the leg.” From this literal meaning, “shank” soon developed a wide range of figurative senses, mostly describing a straight part of something, especially a part used to grip the thing or attach it to something else. Thus the straight part of a fishing hook is called the “shank,” as is the straight part of a pin or nail, the stalk of a plant, and the end of a drill bit that goes into the chuck. Aficionados of prison documentaries (does MSNBC ever show anything else on weekends?) will also know “shank” as slammer slang for a homemade knife, probably because such things are often made from a simple strip of metal.
The literal “leg” sense of “shank” produced one of my favorite slang expressions way back in the late 18th century, “to ride Shanks’ mare” (or “take Shanks’ pony”), meaning, of course, to walk on one’s own legs, especially for a distance one would rather ride a horse (“I’ll start for Carnarvon on Shanks’s pony,” 1898). “Taking Walker’s bus” is of similar vintage.
The “shank” of “the shank of the evening” is a more figurative use, but, as I said, opinions vary on what it means. The phrase first appeared in print in 1828, and “shank” in this sense is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The latter end or part of anything: the remainder or last part of a thing.” That would make “shank of the evening” the time when a party is winding down, not just getting good. But other sources define “shank of the evening” as “the main part” of the evening, which would not only agree with your understanding of the phrase, but also seem more in keeping with “shank” meaning “long, straight part of something.” Many dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster Online, play it safe on this “shank” and offer both “the latter part of a period of time” and “the early or main part of a period of time” as definitions. Not surprisingly,”shank of the evening” also appears on several lists of “words and phrases that are their own antonyms” (such as “cleave” meaning both “to separate” and “to stick together”).
As to which is the “correct” meaning, I actually suspect that “tail end of the evening” was the original, invoking the sense of “shank” as “the end one holds” as in the “shank” of a drill bit. But feel free to use it either way, and have fun explaining all this to your kids.