At lunch yesterday, my friend Max reported referring contemptuously to something as a dink, in a conversation with her sister. Her sister identified the word as a slang term peculiar to Maine (where the two of them grew up) — an insult just short of swear-word status, most commonly used for reference to people, glossed as ‘a stupid person, a jerk, an a-hole’ in one of the dink entries in the Urban Dictionary, as a ‘derogatory term for a person or animal’ in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), vol. 2. I said I had heard the word, though I thought it wasn’t strictly local to Maine, but was used somewhat more widely in New England.

Ned, the other friend having lunch with us, recalled another noun dink, referring to a kind of cap freshmen were obliged to wear when he went to Lehigh University. I was familiar with this one too, from my days at Princeton.

It turns out that the world of dink and related vocabulary is large and complex. I won’t try to summarize the whole dink universe here, but I’ll hit some of the highlights.

1. Derogatory dink. A note on its local nature: DARE doesn’t mark the item as a New Englandism, and in fact it gives cites from Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin for the word derogatory dink used to refer to people (plus some used to refer to horses).

Why, then, did Max and her sister think that the item was a Maine thing, and why did the Urban Dictionary contributor quoted above think that it was “local slang in Vermont”? Well, they knew the item in these locations, and it’s probably used more frequently in (parts of) New England than elsewhere, so they might not have come across it elsewhere.

2. Other DARE dinks. DARE has two other items:

dink ‘penis’ (especially the small penis of a boy, according to a 1942 source cited in DARE); and

dink ‘a small marble, usually made of clay’.

Penis dink and marbles dink share a component of smallness that turns up all over the place in Dink World. Indeed, one of the Urban Dictionary’s entries glosses penis dink as ‘very small cock’. (DARE speculates that the development of penis dink might have been encouraged by dick.)

Penis dink might provide a link to derogatory dink, since several penis words have uses as derogatory terms: prick and dick, in particular. Another possible link from penis dink, marbles dink, and some other dink words to derogatory dink is the component of smallness; words denoting or connoting smallness easily develop uses conveying worthlessness, derogation, and the like.

There might also be a link here to freshman-cap dink, since dink caps were part of a set of rituals and practices visited upon (worthless) freshmen. But I have no actual information on the history of freshman-cap dink.

In any case, penis dink seems to have no strong regional association, but it looks like marbles dink does: DARE‘s citations are from North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky.

3. The OED‘s dinks. The OED doesn’t have entries for any of the four dinks I’ve mentioned so far, though it has one entry that might be connected to derogatory dink. (Except where noted, all this material is from the OED2 of 1989.)

First, an Australian noun and related transitive verb (slang, of unknown origin), attested from 1934 on: ‘a ride or lift on the bar of a bicycle’, ‘give (a person) such a lift’.

Second, a U.S. noun (onomatopoetic) and related transitive verb, attested from 1939 on: ‘a drop shot in lawn tennis’. Also in AHD4. Onomatopoetic uses have been reported in other sports and games.

Third, a piece of U.S. military slang from the Vietnam War (marked as of unknown origin by the OED, though it might be a specialization of derogatory dink), attested from 1969 on: ‘derogatory or contemptuous term for a Vietnamese person’. Other sources provide narrower glosses; some restrict it to the Viet Cong, or as AHD4 puts in, in greater detail, (offensive slang) disparaging for a N. Vietnamese soldier or guerilla in the Vietnam War’.

Fourth, a noun and adjective dink in colloquial Australian and New Zealand English (an abbreviation of dinkum ‘truth’, ‘true’), attested from 1906 on. The origins of dinkum itself (attested from 1894 on) are unknown.

Fifth (in the OED additions of 1993), the acronymic slang word DINK (originally North American, attested from 1987 on): Double Income No Kids, that is, a childless couple. (Also in NOAD2.) There’s also dinky or dinkie (cf. yuppie), attested from 1986 on.

Sixth, an adjective (of unknown origin) in Scottish English and northern English dialects, attested from 1508 on: ‘finely dressed, decked out; trim’.

And seventh, a Scottish English transitive verb (derived from the adjective), attested from 1811 on: ‘dress finely, deck’.

4. Dinky. The OED also has entries for several items dinky. One is an adjective and noun related to the adjective dink just mentioned. This item started out as a dialectal and colloquial adjective (chiefly in Scottish English) meaning ‘neat, trim, dainty’ (attested from 1788 on) but developed an additional sense ‘small, tiny, trifling’, now a widespread slangy use in North America (NOAD2: (informal) ‘small, insignificant’). We are now back in the Smallness Zone of Dink World.

The OED also has a noun dinky that might have developed from dinky ‘small’: ‘any small object or contrivance; spec. a small boat or a small locomotive’ (attested from 1849 on). (Both OED2 and DARE suggest that the ‘small boat’ use might be connected to dinghy.) DARE lists small-boat dinky and small-locomotive dinky in separate sub-entries.

Both OED2 and DARE note variant spellings (dinkey, dinkie), and DARE lists dink (again!) and dinky-boat as alternatives to small-boat dinky.

(For completeness: OED2 also has an entry for the noun Dinky, a ‘proper name for a make of toy model motor vehicles’; and DARE also has a sub-entry for the noun dinky referring to the ruddy duck.)

5. A little more. On the smallness and triviality themes…

From the Jargon File, an entry with dink (probably shortened from dinky) referring in hacker slang to a “machine too small to be worth bothering about”.

Several sources also offer dink (around) as a verb referring to wasting time by goofing off (possible association with dick (around)?).

And then there’s rinky-dink (of unknown origin in OED2, though dinky might have been indirectly involved), a (chiefly U.S.) slang noun (attested from 1912 on) and adjective (attested from 1913 on): ‘something that is worn out or antiquated, a worthless object; a cheap place of entertainment’ and ‘worthless, worn out, trivial; old-fashioned, outmoded’.

There are lots of other odds and ends, but then I never promised you a complete survey of Ding World and will stop with rinky-dink.

2 Responses to “dinks”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    Urban Dictionary is all over this. Amazingly definition #33 invokes Ding and Californication.

  2. Gramja Says:

    Thanks for the exhaustive study. My husband said, “Okay, enough dinkin’ around.” I replied, “You know, when I was a girl, boys used ‘dink’ to refer to ‘penis.’ That began a search for the uses of the word….

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: