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shameless pleading

Dingbat

Hunka hunka whatsis.

Dear Word Detective: The other day I was describing a new hire whom my wife knew from her nursing days. She immediately labeled her a “dingbat.” This word obviously came from the Archie Bunker school. In looking it up as to origin in the dictionary (Random House College Dictionary) it states: “Informal ‘dingus.’ Print: an ornamental piece of type for borders, decorations, etc.” So, how did it get from this definition to become “a silly, eccentric, somewhat dim person”? — Maxwell M. Urata, MD.

Good question. Most Americans probably associate the word “dingbat” with Archie Bunker, the central character in the 1971-79 hit US TV comedy All in the Family. Played by Carroll O’Connor, Archie was a deeply conservative and irascible (but amusing and lovable) working-class family man living in the NYC borough of Queens with his wife Edith, daughter Gloria, and son-in-law Mike Stivic (played by Rob Reiner). Archie was a racist, sexist, xenophobic and homophobic blowhard, but though he frequently, in moments of anger, referred to Edith as “Dingbat,” it was clear that he loved and depended on her.

In calling Edith a “dingbat,” Archie was using the word in the same sense as your wife did, i.e., to mean a “nitwit” or “kook,” a silly, stupid or flighty, frivolous person (“Miss Sternhagen’s mother increases in giddiness, even to wearing what appears to be a feather in her hair. She is, in fact, a certifiable dingbat,” 1985). This sense of “dingbat” first appeared in print (as far as we know) in 1915. An adjectival form, “dingbatty,” had popped up in 1911, indicating that the word may, in fact, be a bit older and raising the intriguing possibility that “dingbat” may be related to “batty,” which has been slang for “insane” (implying that one has “bats in one’s belfry”) since the end of the 19th century.

The curious thing about “dingbat,” however, is the fact that while it first appeared meaning “nut case” around 1911, “dingbat” had been widely used since the early 19th century with a wide variety of other meanings. At that time, a “dingbat” could be “a sum of money, or coins or bills themselves,” “an unidentifiable or nameless object or tool” (equivalent to “thingamabob” or “whatchamacallit”), a tramp or hobo, or a hard or heavy object suitable for throwing (overlapping with “brickbat,” a piece of broken brick used as a weapon). The use of “dingbat” to mean “an ornamental item of type” appeared around 1921 and is almost certainly based on “dingbat” meaning “a nameless object.”

So here we have a word, “dingbat,” that apparently appeared from nowhere and can mean darn near anything. Sorting out its origins should be a piece of cake, right? Actually, if we agree to not look too closely or get overly picky, I believe we can untangle most of the mystery.

To begin at the shallow end of the pool, the element “ding” in “dingbat” is probably the Dutch word “ding,” meaning “thing.” This “ding” is also the source of our English slang word “dingus,” meaning “gadget, contraption, thingamabob.”

The “bat” in most 19th century senses of “dingbat” is probably the same “bat” we find today in “baseball bat.” In Old English a “bat” was “a cudgel or war club,” but in Middle English it was also used to mean simply a lump or left-over chunk of something (thus “brickbat,” a broken brick). A “bat” in this sense could be almost any material, so “dingbat,” essentially “a bit of a thing,” was about as vague a word as could be imagined, applicable to any nameless object, a nameless hobo, bits of money, etc.

While the “bat” of “dingbat” was probably originally the “piece or chunk” kind of “bat,” for many people it probably prompted thoughts of the other kind of “bat” in English, the flying rodent “bat” (which takes its name from Scandinavian roots). The long association of bats with strange behavior and insanity had already given us, as noted above, the terms “bats” and “batty,” so pressing “dingbat” into service to mean “crackpot” was a natural step.

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