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shameless pleading






Picky, picky.

Dear Word Detective: While reading a series of essays by E.B. White, I came across the word “pindling” to describe a turkey he had raised: “this one is rather pindling for her age …”. I had never heard the word before, so I looked it up and found that it means something like “scrawny,” but was unable to find a believable etymology. The closest I found was a reference to “spindly,” which seemed a bit thin to me. What say you: is it “spindly,” or is there more meat to this word? — Jim Brown.

Ah yes, E.B. White, author of such classics as “Charlotte’s Web,” a book I loved as a child but later came to bitterly resent after I’d met a few actual spiders, none of whom wanted to be my pal. Incidentally, many people don’t know that the “E.B.” actually stood for White’s nickname “Easter Bunny,” referring to White’s bizarre habit of wearing a tattered rabbit suit to work every day at the New Yorker for many years. Ironically, White was finally forced to abandon his beloved and aromatic bunny suit soon after retiring to Maine and encountering local hunters.

I’d never heard the word “pindling” before either, which is odd because it’s considered a New England word and I grew up in New England. (It’s also heard in the South Midland dialect region, which includes Kentucky, the southern bits of Indiana and Illinois, and a ways west of there.) The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “pindling” as “Sickly, delicate; puny. Also occasionally: trifling, insignificant,” and their first print citation is from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Pearl of Orr’s Island” (1861), a novel set, appropriately, in Maine (“I’m a-thinkin’ … whether or no cows’ milk an’t goin’ to be too hearty for it, it’s such a pindling little thing”). The OED also notes that “pindling” has also been used, albeit rarely, as a regional dialect term in England meaning “ill-humored” (“I niver seed sech peevish, pindlin, fractious ways,” 1895).

Theories about the roots of “pindling” abound, but none of them has enough evidence behind it to constitute a solid answer. The simplest traces the word to “pine” as a common English verb meaning “to suffer, especially from grief or separation; to waste away” (“When she is away from him, even on a July vacation, she pines,” 1988). This “pine” has nothing to do with pine trees; it comes ultimately from the Latin “poena,” meaning “punishment, pain.”

The OED also suggests that the source of “pindling” may be the now-rare British dialect word “pingling,” meaning “feeble,” which comes from the Scots verb “pingle,” meaning both “to work hard” and “to struggle or suffer” and is used today in the North of England to mean “to pick at one’s food; to eat with little appetite.”

Probably the simplest explanation offered for “pindling” is that it may be related somehow to “piddling,” an adjective common since the mid-16th century meaning “ineffectual” or “insignificant” (“The man of business has not time for such piddling work,” circa 1774). “Piddling,” in turn, comes from the verb “to piddle,” meaning “to waste time, work ineffectually” or, of course, “to urinate.” The roots of “piddle” are unknown, so the trail goes cold at this point, but we’ll always have “pindling.”

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