I wonder if he ever washed that comb.
Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering about the origin of the adjective “ginchy,” 1950’s slang for “cool,” “neat,” etc. If you could answer this question, you’d be the ginchiest! — Nerdmonkey.
That’s an interesting question. So fasten your seatbelts and we’ll set the Wayback Machine for the wild, wacky world of 1950s teen slang (in which there were, ironically, no seatbelts to fasten). Way back in 1954, my parents, William and Mary Morris, produced a small brochure titled “The Real Gone Lexicon.” Based on information submitted by readers of my father’s newspaper column (“Words, Wit and Wisdom”), the pamphlet was a collection of teen slang as it was spoken at that time (at least by the teen-aged children of my father’s readers).
Unfortunately, while the Real Gone Lexicon included such outlandish terms as “gasser” (something great) and “smearfink” (an “all-around dope”), apparently none of their readers mentioned “ginchy.” But that may be because, in 1954, the term didn’t yet exist.
According to every source I’ve found, including the Oxford English Dictionary, “ginchy” barely made it under the wire as 1950s slang. It seems to have first been used in a wildly popular 1959 song called “Kookie Kookie — Lend Me Your Comb,” recorded by actor Edd Byrnes and singer Connie Stevens. Edd (not a typo) Byrnes was a teen sensation at the time because he played “Kookie” Kookson in the hit ABC TV detective drama “77 Sunset Strip.” In the series, Kookie, who wore his hair in a 1950s “ducktail” pompadour, worked as a nightclub parking attendant but moonlighted as an assistant to two real private investigators (played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and Roger Smith). Given any pause in the action, Kookie would inevitably whip out his comb and groom his hair, so when it came time to capitalize on Kookie’s fame with a pop song, the focus was naturally on his comb. This may all sound insipid, but I’ll bet there’s a graduate program in Kookie Studies out there somewhere. If nothing else, Kookie was clearly the inspiration for Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli (aka The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler) on the TV series “Happy Days.”
“Kookie Kookie” definitely contains the line “B-a-aby, you’re the ginchiest!”, but it’s likely the word had previously been used in the show by Kookie, who spoke almost entirely in hipster slang. It definitely became associated with Byrnes (who went on to a respectable movie career). “Ginchy” attained a moderate degree of popularity as a slang term in the 1960s, but lacked the staying power of “groovy” or “cool.” Apparently “ginchy” was also associated with the character of Gidget, a late 1950s and 1960s franchise of books, movies and a TV show (starring Sally Field) created by author Arthur Kohner in his 1957 novel “Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas.” (The nickname “Gidget” was a blend of “girl” and “midget” and the character was based on Kohner’s daughter Kathy). Gidget’s use of “ginchy” must have come in the later books, movies and TV show, since Kookie’s use of the word apparently is the first recorded use.
The roots of “ginchy” are uncertain. It may be related to the earlier (1930s) “ginch,” a somewhat crude slang term for an attractive woman (“He found himself walking away beside this lithe, bright-eyed, altogether luscious ginch in the tennis frock,” 1934), which is itself of unknown origin.
Interestingly, “ginchy” seems to have mutated a bit in the 1970s, showing up being used to mean “jumpy” or “apprehensive” (“I got very ginchy about being left alone with Eileen, very hopeful and very anxious both at once,” 1970). A poster on the American Dialect Society mailing list ADS-L last year noted “ginchy” being used to mean “wary” or “leery” (“But some physicians are ginchy about the potential long-term effects of using hormones,” 2003), which is about as far from Kookie’s “ginchy” as you can get.