Jim Dandy

Whatever it was, it was a really good whatever it was.

Dear Word Detective: I often reply “Jim Dandy” when asked how I’m feeling. Was Mr. Dandy a real or fictional gentleman, and if so, was he known for his contented nature? Or have I been using his name in vain? — Regards from Jane Dandy.

You too, eh? I generally reply to the question with either “fine” or “peachy.” It’s some weird compulsion, probably based in all that positive thinking folderol we were fed as kids. Then again, maybe you really do feel “Jim Dandy” most of the time, in which case you have some ‘splainin to do. I watch enough TV commercials to know we all feel awful and need at least nineteen prescription drugs just to get out of bed every day. In fact, I don’t think you’re as “Jim Dandy” as you think you are. I think you have Chronic Pervasive Health and Contentment Syndrome (CPHCS), a serious disorder I just invented, for which an appropriate treatment will no doubt be marketed shortly. You’ll know you’ve beaten CPHCS when you think you have 37 other diseases.

“Jim Dandy” is interesting in several respects. First, it’s a noun as well as an adjective. It’s also apparently a US invention, first appearing in print, as far as we know, in the Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, Kentucky in 1887 (“Dear Sir: Though a stranger to you (yet a Democrat), let me say you are a ‘Jim Dandy’”). In this noun form, “Jim Dandy” meant simply “an excellent person or thing.” The first verified adjectival use of “Jim Dandy” appeared in a Chicago publication one year later (“George C. Ball came upon the floor yesterday arrayed in a jim-dandy suit of clothes.”). As an adjective it’s used to mean “strikingly fine” or “excellent.” The use of “Jim Dandy” as a noun is rare today, but the adjectival form is obviously alive and well, and usually appears in print lower-case and hyphenated.

As to whether “Jim Dandy” ever referred to an actual person, the jury is still out (it’s hard to prove a negative), but the consensus among etymologists seems to be “probably not.” That doesn’t mean that the term just dropped out of thin air, however. There was a popular minstrel song back in the 1840s called “Dandy Jim of Caroline” (words and music by Silas Sexton Steel and J. Richard Myers, respectively) which may have planted the seed of “Jim Dandy” in the public consciousness. The song, written in a mock African-American dialect, tells the story of a “dandy” young man who woos and wins a young woman named Dinah and goes on to have “eight or nine young Dandy Jims of Caroline.”

“Dandy” as a noun dates back to the late 18th century, when it first appeared in England meaning a young man who devotes excessive attention to fashionable dress and grooming, otherwise known as a “fop.” The origin of word “dandy” itself is a mystery, but it may be a shortened form of the 17th century term “Jack-a-dandy,” which meant “a conceited little man.” It may also be significant that “Dandy” is a familiar form of the name “Andrew” in Scotland.

The historical existence of the term “dandy” and an inexplicably popular 19th century song titled “Dandy Jim of Caroline” are probably the closest we’ll get to an explanation of “Jim Dandy!” as a positive personal status update. But, in an interesting sidelight, etymologist Gerald Cohen has uncovered what seems to have been the avenue by which the term “Jim Dandy” was widely popularized. Fittingly for an American colloquialism, it was baseball. Although the earliest instance of the term found so far in print is in a non-baseball context, according to Cohen, sports reporters instantly fell in love with in the term (“The Giants gave the local patrons of the game a couple of surprises during the past week, and whereas on Wednesday night they were proclaimed ‘Jim Dandy’ players, they were on Thursday declared to be ‘no good,’” The World (New York), June 19, 1887), and used it frequently.

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