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shameless pleading






And chicken fingers. Lots of chicken fingers.

Dear Word Detective: As part of my weight-gaining regimen, I often drink a Snapple. Today the cap Real Fact #752 was “A group of twelve or more cows is called a flink.” I cannot find much information on this word, though I now know that cows may have regional accents. Can you hang a tale on this word? — Charlie N.

Feh. Snapple is for pikers. Our local newspaper prints the school lunch menu, and I noticed recently that the little monsters seem to get something called “Bosco Sticks” as a main course at least three times a week. Bosco Sticks are not, as I had expected, giant chocolate bars. They turn out to be Brobdingnagian breadsticks filled with tomato sauce and cheese (“Just thaw, bake or deep fry, and top with butter and parmesan cheese for a delicious breadstick!”). Yeah, don’t forget the butter. Now we know why Johnny can’t breathe. But for quick weight gain, Bosco Sticks sound like just the ticket. You’ll have to give up climbing stairs, of course.

Unfortunately, and I say this as someone who willingly falls for every cute or quirky animal story that comes galloping down the pike, that thing about cows having regional accents is not, as far as anyone knows, true. Back in 2006, an English dairy farmers’ group called the West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers were preparing to market a new line of regional cheeses. A public relations firm working for the group contacted John Wells, Professor of Phonetics at the University of London, and asked him if it was “possible” that cows, like some birds (and cheeses, I guess), might have regional accents. Professor Wells said that it was, of course, in theory, “possible.” Presto, within days he was being quoted around the world as saying that cows did, in fact, exhibit regional twangs and drawls in their moos. Which they maybe do, maybe don’t, but nobody knows. Wanna buy some cheese?

“Flink” as a collective noun for a group of twelve (or more) cows is, as you’ve probably gathered, a bit of a mystery. The only “flink” listed by reputable dictionaries is “flink” as a 19th century US rural dialect verb meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “to behave in a cowardly manner,” and the word itself is probably simply a variant of “flinch.” The “cow” in “cowardly” is as close as “flink” gets to livestock in real dictionaries.

“Flink” is, however, found all over the internet, variously defined as “a group of twelve cows,” “at least twelve cows,” and so on. Obviously it’s not impossible for a word or usage to originate on the internet. But this isn’t “lolcat” or “spam,” and “flink” is widely presented as an established term on lists of collective animal nouns (“pod” of whales, “murder” of crows, etc.). Something is fishy.

Poking around on the trail of “flink,” I came upon what may be the explanation for its apparently sudden appearance sometime around 2002. In an article in one of the behind-the-scenes parts of Wikipedia, a user suggests that “flink” might be a fanciful invention based on the “cow” of that “cowardly” in the OED definition, and that, furthermore, “flink” might actually be a “mountweazel” that has, so to speak, escaped into the wild.

A “mountweazel,” as I explained a few months ago, is a spurious entry deliberately included in a dictionary or encyclopedia in order to trap plagiarists. (The name comes from a fictitious entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, supposedly a famous photographer of rural mailboxes, included in the 1975 edition of The Columbia Encyclopedia.) It seems entirely possible that “flink” was invented as such a mountweazel for a text, perhaps an electronic dictionary, which was then widely plagiarized on the internet, giving the imaginary “flink” a life of its own. Of course, if “flink” is still popping up on the internet in a few years, it’ll be time to begin considering it a “real” word fit for “real” dictionaries.

21 comments to Flink

  • Ross Presser

    In 2002, Kay Pfaltz published “Lauren’s Story: An American Dog in Paris”. On page 21 appears the sentence “A flink is twelve or more cows.” It seems pretty obvious from the context that it is a joke, and possible that this book is the origin of the sentence.

  • Ross Presser

    I’ve emailed the author through her website to see if she claims invention.

  • Ross Presser

    Unfortunately Ms. Pfaltz replied that she did not invent the term: “No, I actually heard that a flink was twelve or more cows. But when I later went to verify I found no reference.”

  • Ross Presser

    Here is a Usenet citation from 1996:

    Note the group it appeared on — clearly it was thought doubtful even then.

  • Roger Hulme

    I was just frying some eggs, sunny side up,by FLINKING fat over the yolks from the bottom of the pan. Similarly, if I wash my hands and there are no towels – I FLINK the excess droplets off.
    This comes from my childhood in UK (40s-50s) gleaned from my mother who grew up in Devon in 1910-30.

    FLINK, v> and sb. Dor. Som. Dev. Cor. Also in form vlink Dev. 1. v. To fling, toss, jerk; to sprinkle, shake; sometimes with off, out.

    Dev. ‘E’th a flinked tha watter awl awver tha room. ‘E (linked the dist in my eye. Flink out yer apporn till ‘e’s dry, Hewett Peas. Sp. (1892). n.Dev. ‘A might ‘a flinked ‘e vrom en, Rock Jim an’ Nell (1867) st. 90. nw.Dev.1 Doan ee flink yur pen like that, you’ll hail the desk all auver [you will cover the desk with ink]. Jis’ flink the znaw off yur jacket avore you kom een. Cor. Thomas Randigal Rhymes (1895) Gl.; Cor.1 She flinkt out of the room. She flinkt off her hat.

    Hence Flinker, sb. a proud woman.

    Dor. Haynes Voc. (c. 1730) in N. V Q. (1883) 6th S. vii. 366.

    2. To comb the hair. Dev. N. 6r» Q. (1866) 3rd S. ix. 320. Hence (1) Flinking-comb, (2) Flinktail-comb, sb. a

    dressing comb, a large comb for the hair.

    (1) Dev. She was making a pudden wi’ pindy flour in a cloam dish,. . while a Sinking comb wur lying right into the flour, ib. (2) Dev. Hewett Peas. Sp. (1892).

    3. sb. A fling, jerk; a blow with the tips of the finger. Cor.1 She went out with a flink ; Cor.3 A flink under the ear.

    In freq. use.

    4. Phr. (1) to care a flink, to care a whit; (2) to give something a brave flink, to make a good attempt or endeavour.

    (1) Som. But as for the pink I cared not a flink, Child Sa//arfs( 1894) V. 259. (a) Cor. Can you say the Lord’s Prayer, my son ?—Don’t knaw ef I can ‘zactly, sir; but I can gibb’n a brave flink, Thomas Randigal Rhymes (1895) Gl.; Cor.3 Aw dedn’t do it fitty, but aw gave un a brave flink. In freq. use.

    5. A bad temper, tantrum; also in pi.

    Cor. Missus has been in a bra’ flink all day, because I brok’ a cup (M.A.C.); Cor.a She’s in one of her flinks again. 8. Figure, appearance.

    • joyce mclean

      You are right. In Cornwall, flinking is what you do when you shake a laundered article before hanging it up on the clothesline….outside, of course. It’s a short sharp flick of the wrists.

  • Roger Hulme

    I should add that my OED echos your comment. I found my earlier reference by GOOGLING “flink dialect”.

    The eggs, by the way were real. It occured to me that I had not heard the word in years and went to the web where I found your site. I am bookmarking it; thanks.

  • W E Dunning

    A quick google turns up several websites featuring science for youngsters that talk of making an object that neither floats on top of a vessel of water, nor sinks to the bottom, but hovers halfway up or down — apparently like the glass spheres in the Galileo thrmometer.

    The verb used is “flink.” It seems to have been created by combininig FLoat and sINK into a single term. That sounds exactly like what a child of about that age would do, and it seems a good term, as applied to hovering in a liquid.

    We use “hover,” I think, to imply airborne, rather than waterborne, situations.

    The noun “flinker” appears in some of these sites as the generic name of an object of varying density that flinks in water. Not a floater, not a sinker, but a flinker: sounds good to me!

    The “flink of cows” terminology has one basic flaw. Evidently, to flink-users, a herd of cows (or cattle? or other beasts?) is any plural number from 2 to a Texas ranch, but a flink is exactly 12, no more, no less, and no goats, either. I’d call that “a herd of a dozen cows or goats or critters” and be done with it.

    Bill Dunning
    Santa Fe, NM

    • Ray Butler

      Bill Dunning?

      I know a W. E. “Bill” Dunning from Panama City, FL

      He’s an Engineer who worked at Arizona Chemical Company in Panama City, Florida and was also the Plant Manager at Arizona Chemical Co. Port St. Joe, FL.

      Mr. Dunnings comment sounds like the person I know; very smart man!

      Good luck out there in Santa Fe, NM

      Bill, if you click on: YouTube and type “Arizona Chemical Demolition” and watch A-50 Distillation Column, PS-1 Tower, A-20 and A-30 Distillation Columns fall to the ground in the 1 minute video. Since you worked there as I did for 33 years, it will be sad!

      The new owners; Rhone Capital, LLC now realize they closed and demolished the wrong money making chemical plant, but it’s too late now, it’s all gone.

      The 34 acres of land was donated to the Gulf County Port Authority for free.

      Ray L. Butler
      Powerhouse Operator
      PSJ, Florida

  • rudolf flink

    I do not know where all you people come up with all this bull dust about my family name, it has been around since the 13th century from Germany, the name translated means :good, brave: so all this rubbish about a herd of cows is what we call in Australia Bulls!!t.

  • Jules

    There was a children’s cartoon program on American TV in the 1950s that aired a segment called “The Three-Horned Flink”:

  • Barabra Flink Bordelon

    Rudolf in Australia, My Father was born in New Orleans, LA. His great grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in the 1800s. Since my father was orphaned at the age of twelve years old and we have no family connections from his side of the family. I’ve often wondered about our family name and am very pleased with the translation meaning: good and brave. Thanks for the information I am very happy to go with that.

  • gee mallette

    Flink is a word used on a movie scabble game. It’s gotta be a joke. The movie is called crawlspace.

  • Danielle Klein

    I have come across the word “flinked” while reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (Copyright 1954, published by The Berkley Publishing Group, NY USA)
    I have this story in the past, but apparently a different edition(?), as I have noted some differences in word usage (tube vs passenger cabin when referring to the plane; candy store vs sweets shop). However, I did not notice the word “flinked” (pg 10 “…the white surf flinked on a coral reef…”) until recently. I am glad to have found this website, as I could not find the word in the dictionary and thought perhaps it was a typo, or the authors deciding to create his own word as a type of onomatopoeia

  • Frank Martin

    Flink is defined as “quick, nimble, brisk” on page 194 of Langenscheidt’s Lilliput German-English Dictionary, © 1964.

  • Siri

    Flink means cleaver in Norwegian.

  • Anne Marie Anderson

    My kids and I encountered this animal “fact” in a board game we recently purchased. I told her I would look it up but that I was CERTAIN it was not true. And I was right!

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