The St. Patrick’s Day spriticide

The event: the leprechaun has been murdered, with a porcelain figure. How to describe the event as concisely as possible? Today’s Rhymes with Orange strip shows us a police detective who can do it in three words. (And it’s been set to music!)

The strip:

(#1) The amount of background information you need to bring to bear to understand and enjoy this cartoon is just enormous — starting with recognizing the dead figure as a leprechaun, and connecting that to a pot of gold. And then there’s the elaborate verbal joke …

Components of the language play. The three content words (from NOAD), and then their combination.

noun knickknack: a small worthless object, especially a household ornament.

noun Paddy: informal, mainly derogatory an Irishman (often as a form of address). ORIGIN late 18th century: pet form of the Irish given name Padraig. [so: the informal version of St. Patrick’s Day is not St. Patty’s DayPatty isn’t used as a pet form of Patrick — but St. Paddy’s Day, based on Padraig]

verb whack: informal verb [with object] [a] strike forcefully with a sharp blow: his attacker whacked him on the head | [no object]: she found a stick to whack at the branches. [b] North American murder: he was whacked while sitting in his car. [obviously, it’s sense b, probably in its nouned derivative, in #1]

So, what’s you’ve got, off the shelf so to speak, is a N + N compound, with N1 conveying means or instrument:

[ knickknack ] + [ Paddy whack ] ‘a Paddy whack achieved by using a knickknack’

the second element of which is itself a N + N compound, with N1 conveying the affected participant in an action (as with the direct object of an action verb):

[ Paddy ] + [ whack ] ‘the whacking (i.e. murdering) of a Paddy’

Another route to knickknack paddy whack. The complex backstory in #1 is all to work up to a stretch of nonsense in the nursery rhyme “This Old Man”. From the All Nursery Rhymes site:

“This Old Man” is a traditional English nursery rhyme and counting song.

The song was collected and published in 1937 by the nursery rhymes collector Anne Gilchrist in “Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society”, as she remembered it from her Welsh nurse from the 1870s.

Some years before, another version of the song was recorded in the “English Folk-Songs for Schools” collection published in 1906 by Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould.

Some lyrics: verse 1 and chorus:

This old man, he played one,
He played knick-knack on my thumb;

With a knick-knack paddywhack,
Give the dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.

Yes, it’s all set to music. Most of the chorus:


Because the words in the first measure here are just nonsense words, with no connection to nicks, knickknacks, knacks, any sort of paddies or Paddies, or any sense of wack or whack, printed words for this passage come with a wide range of alternative spellings, among them:

solid knickknack, hyphenated knick-knack, separated knick knack; similar variants for paddywhack; plus variant spellings whack and wack, and variant spellings knick and nick

The untold story. A lot remains mysterious. In particular, the song doesn’t elaborate on the possible involvement of the ominous, possibly abusive, old man and the dog (with its undoubtedly filthy bone) in the dark deed. However, recent research at the Knick-Knack Institute, a private foundation devoted to tracing pre-1850 sources and precursors of the material in the nursery rhyme, suggests that the counting-rhyme dog, a pug, did indeed belong to the old man. The two of them were painted in the 1740s in An Old Man with a Dog by Giacomo Ceruti; from Wikipedia:

(#3) The painting, from the Met Museum site

Giacomo Antonio Melchiorre Ceruti (October 13, 1698 – August 28, 1767) was an Italian late Baroque painter, active in Northern Italy in Milan, Brescia, and Venice. He acquired the nickname Pitocchetto (the little beggar) for his many paintings of peasants dressed in rags.

… While he also painted still-life paintings and religious scenes, Ceruti is best known for his genre paintings, especially of beggars and the poor, whom he painted realistically and endowed with unusual dignity and individuality.

According to the Institute, the old man and his dog were suspected of all manner of unscrupulous and ruffianly behavior, even murder for money in the dark of night; the little dog’s piteous cries would lure victims into dark corners, where the old man could easily dispatch them, using whatever materials were at hand. Together they were perfectly capable of committing a knick-knack paddy whack.

2 Responses to “The St. Patrick’s Day spriticide”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Oh, thank you! I was disappointed, when I read the strip, that the dog and its bone had not been included, and you have filed the gap admirably.

  2. Rod Williams Says:

    On the subject of “mainly derogative” Paddy, here’s an art project to address that…

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: