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shameless pleading

Shank of the Evening

Hello, I must be going.

Dear Word Detective: Once again I have used a phrase that caused my children to look at me and say, “What?” I was saying that we never left a party during the “shank of the evening.”  To me, this has always meant the time when the party was at its best with the most fun being had by all. Now I am curious to know, (1) if I am correct, and (2) how this expression came about.  Any explanation from you will be immediately forwarded to my kids! — Marsha.

Hey, I’m with your kids on this one: Huh? I don’t recall ever hearing “shank of the evening” until I read your question, although I could be wrong, because my memory seems to be shot. I blame the internet. After all, if you can look up the lyrics to the theme from “Mister Ed” in three seconds, what’s the point of even trying to remember the name of that kid in third grade who bit you on the leg at recess? Just put up a Facebook page and he’ll find you. My mind is starting to resemble a vacant lot full of big rocks. I just hope my car keys are under one of them.

Fortunately, many other people have heard the expression “shank of the evening.” Unfortunately, they seem unable to agree on exactly what it means.

“Shank” itself is a very old English word, derived from Germanic roots, that initially meant “the part of the leg of an animal between the knee and the ankle” or a similar section of the leg of an animal that lacks ankles. “Shank” has also been used throughout its history to mean simply “the leg.” From this literal meaning, “shank” soon developed a wide range of figurative senses, mostly describing a straight part of something, especially a part used to grip the thing or attach it to something else. Thus the straight part of a fishing hook is called the “shank,” as is the straight part of a pin or nail, the stalk of a plant, and the end of a drill bit that goes into the chuck. Aficionados of prison documentaries (does MSNBC ever show anything else on weekends?) will also know “shank” as slammer slang for a homemade knife, probably because such things are often made from a simple strip of metal.

The literal “leg” sense of “shank” produced one of my favorite slang expressions way back in the late 18th century, “to ride Shanks’ mare” (or “take Shanks’ pony”), meaning, of course, to walk on one’s own legs, especially for a distance one would rather ride a horse (“I’ll start for Carnarvon on Shanks’s pony,” 1898). “Taking Walker’s bus” is of similar vintage.

The “shank” of “the shank of the evening” is a more figurative use, but, as I said, opinions vary on what it means. The phrase first appeared in print in 1828, and “shank” in this sense is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The latter end or part of anything: the remainder or last part of a thing.” That would make “shank of the evening” the time when a party is winding down, not just getting good. But other sources define “shank of the evening” as “the main part” of the evening, which would not only agree with your understanding of the phrase, but also seem more in keeping with “shank” meaning “long, straight part of something.” Many dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster Online, play it safe on this “shank” and offer both “the latter part of a period of time” and “the early or main part of a period of time” as definitions. Not surprisingly,”shank of the evening” also appears on several lists of “words and phrases that are their own antonyms” (such as “cleave” meaning both “to separate” and “to stick together”).

As to which is the “correct” meaning, I actually suspect that “tail end of the evening” was the original, invoking the sense of “shank” as “the end one holds” as in the “shank” of a drill bit.   But feel free to use it either way, and have fun explaining all this to your kids.

11 comments to Shank of the Evening

  • Mary Funke

    Just got my latest fix of Word Detective and I loved the question about
    “shank of the evening.” I thought you might like to know, since like you
    I’ve never heard it in common conversation, that it does (sort of)
    appear in the lyrics of an old Rosemary Clooney song, “In the Cool,
    Cool, Cool of the Evening”. My mother used to listen to Rosemary Clooney
    a lot, hence I’m familiar with the song. The chorus is:

    In the cool cool cool of the evening
    Tell ‘em I’ll be there
    In the cool cool cool of the evening
    You better save a chair
    When the party’s getting a glow on
    Singing fills the air
    In the shank of the night when the doings are right
    You can tell ‘em I’ll be there

    Thanks for searching out all these fascinating words; I look forward to
    each e-mailed column!

  • Charlie N.

    I’ve heard “shank of the evening” off and on since I was a teen in the 1960′s. It was always used to mean early in the evening when things were just getting good. This seems to fit the meaning in the song “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” Rosemary Clooney’s version was the best in my opinion, by the way.

  • Topi Linkala

    About taking a trip. In finnish we have the expression ‘apostle’s convoyance’ for walking the distance. On the other hand we can ‘take a rubber foot’ when we are too tired to walk and use taxi.

  • Mel

    In Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park”(1963), Corrie, the young newlywed says to her mother, “You can’t leave now, Mother! It’s the shank of the evening!” This is at 2 AM as the party is getting its second wind.

  • James Griffin

    “Shank of the Evening” can be found spoken in the 1959 movie classic “Compulsion”. The shank of the evening in the film clearly references the “best part” of the evening, as evidenced by the surrounding dialogue in the scene indicating it isn’t late at all.
    So this clears up its usual meaning in the late 1950′s era.
    Why “shank”? Think “lamb shank”, a prized or most sought after meat portion, i.e., the “best part” of the evening.

  • Mark S.

    Shank of the morning quoted from the story THE CREETURS GO TO THE BARBECUE

    UNCLE REMUS and BRER RABBIT By Joel Chandler Harris Copyright, 1906

    an’ long to’rds de shank er de mornin’, Brer Rabbit ’ud creep thoo de crack er de fence an’ nibble at um.

  • D!

    “Shank of the evening” may be found in the W.C. Fields classic, You’re Telling Me! (1934), at 04:32 into the film.

    Trying to convinct his wife the time is half-past eight, and not almost midnight, Mr. Fields declares “Ah don’t exaggerate, it’s only shank of the eveing, half-past eight.”

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026017/

  • Mark H.

    The Shank of the Evening is a phrase used in Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie. A gentleman caller for Laura announces that he must leave early after dinner
    and Laura’s mother complains that he is missing the Shank of the Evening.

  • Bertram Moshier

    Another media location from the 1950/1960′s is “The Donna Reed Show,” season 2, episode 13, “A Difference of Opinion.” Dr. and Mrs. Stone are at a party and Dr. Stone says it is late and he must be going. The hostess says, he can’t be going yet, as it is the shank of the evening. Another person suggests putting on a pot of coffee and the party continues.

    BTW, it is interesting to compare evening life today to how it was in the 1950/1960′s by watching TV series from 50 to 60 years ago. Times, sometimes, they really do change. In this case not just in speech, dress, but also how we spend our evenings. I must say some of it is an absolute improvement and others I’m not so sure about, myself.

  • Kevin

    The character Bobby says “shank of the evening” during the first part of a two-part “Taxi” episode titled “Memories of Cab 804″

  • Mary Lynn

    I thank you for your submissions from research or from memory. I just remarked to my son that he was arriving home in the shank of the morning.He said that shank thing didn’t make any sense.
    Thanks to your sharing I have a leg to stand on. Pun intended!

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