Tinhorn

Foghorn Leghorn would whack them good.

Dear Word Detective: I would appreciate finding out about the origin of “tinhorn.” I have heard it used to describe both gamblers and dictators and surmise that it derives from some sort of fake horn either on cattle or in form of a drinking device, but I haven’t been able to verify either point of view and think it might come from some other source entirely. Eagerly awaiting enlightenment. — Carl Brush.

Gee, I guess I need a vacation, preferably on some other planet. On first reading the last line of your question, I thought, “You and me both, pal. It’s been three hundred years and it’s definitely time to rerun the Age of Enlightenment.” What can I say? The prospect of rational thought and reasoned debate being cool again makes me feel like a toddler at a pony party. Where the pony isn’t maltreated, of course. And all the cows who need them have shiny prosthetic horns. And the only endangered species are “tinhorns” of all stripes. Take me away, Calgon.

OK, I’m back. I actually did a column on “tinhorn” about a decade ago, but since the type of person described by term is apparently not fading away, I’ll take another shot at it.

A “tinhorn” in popular usage is a contemptible person of dubious character, especially one who affects a showy, flashy appearance (and often pretends to be rich and influential). As an adjective, the most common form today, “tinhorn” means “cheap and insubstantial, but gaudy and pretentious.” For some reason, the name “Donald Trump” keeps floating through my mind, but (pay attention, Trump lawyers) he can’t really be a tinhorn because he actually has money.

Most of us tend to associate “tinhorn” with Western “horse operas,” and there’s a good reason for that. It first appeared in print, in the form “tin horn gambler,” in a New Mexico newspaper in 1885 (“We have been greatly annoyed of late by a lot of tin horn gamblers and prostitutes.”). Although “tin horn” was established slang at the time for a cheaply-made trumpet or other musical instrument, the “tin horn” in “tin horn gambler” actually referred to the preferred gambling game, called “chuck-a-luck,” of such flashy lowlifes.

“Chuck-a-luck” was a simplified version of a more respectable game called “grand hazard,” in which dice were rolled down a small convoluted chute (usually made of leather) onto a playing surface marked for betting and scoring. In the crude version popular in the American West, the playing surface was less complex and, more importantly, the chute, or “horn,” was made of cheap tin. The game attracted low-stakes, unsophisticated gamblers, and both the men who ran the games and their customers were known for dressing as showily as possible. “Tinhorn gambler” thus became a pejorative for a clueless loser who dresses in a flashy fashion in order to appear successful.

Within a few years of its first appearance, “tinhorn” had percolated into the American vocabulary as an adjective with a broader sense of “cheap, showy and phony,” with an emphasis on the “phony” (“All American Communists are, as far as I can discover, absolute boneheads, tinhorn repeaters,” Ezra Pound, 1935). Today the term connotes both phoniness and a pathetic and amateurish pretension (“‘You tin-horn Casanova,’ she said.? ‘Hinting to me that you had her, and I knew all the time you didn’t,’” Rex Stout, 1959).

Part of the success of “tinhorn” as a pejorative noun and adjective was no doubt due to the popular image of tin at the time as a cheap and flimsy substitute for steel, silver or some other more substantial metal. Another adjective, “tinpot,” also reflected the bad reputation of tin, in this case referring to cooking pots made of tin, widely considered inferior and poorly made. Thus “tinpot” became slang in the early 19th century meaning “cheap, without substance, inferior and contemptible” (“Mr. Taylor is a patriot in his little tin pot way,” 1838). This usage is today often seen in the phrase “tinpot dictator,” meaning an autocrat who governs in a grandiose and brutal fashion but wields little or no real power on the world stage.

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