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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.

I swan

Land o’ Goshen, look at that swan.

Dear Word Detective: I grew up up with a sweet-tempered grandmother from Arkansas who had a expression she used when she was surprised, resigned, or slightly irritated with whatever I had gotten into. She would say, “All swan!” or “Well, I’ll swan.” I have looked for it, but not with the dogged determination of some. – Carri H.

Boy howdy. For a phrase fading from the popular lexicon and becoming fainter with every passing year, “I swan” (its most common form) certainly does inspire a lot of reader mail. I’ve dealt with this weird phrase several times over the past twenty years. (Twenty years? Yikes.) But the only person I ever met who routinely used the phrase in real life was my mother-in-law in Central Ohio (who died, at age 89, more than a decade ago). As I noted back in 2006, she had a habit of relating family rumors and neighborhood scandals in a breathless monologue invariably ending in a resigned “I swan” spoken in a tone that meant “I don’t know what the world is coming to.” She also used “I swan” as an interjection when reacting to surprising news, as in “I swan, doesn’t that boy know that will go on his permanent record?” She was also fond of the expression “Land sakes” in similar contexts to express astonishment. But if she was feeling dismissive, she’d declare, “That’s just craziness,” and that was the end of that topic.

Of course, long before I had heard an actual person say “I swan” I had read the phrase in novels and heard it in movies (most likely from Marjorie Main in the Ma and Pa Kettle films, a staple of late night TV at one point). I remember as a child being under the impression that the phrase had something to do with actual swans, perhaps in the sense of “swan song,” which I knew to be a figure of speech for “last words” referring to the old legend about dying swans singing a last, sad song. But that was a bit baroque even for a bookish child, so I eventually decided that “I swan” must have some connection to “swoon.” Since the characters in movies I had heard say “I swan” had heavy southern accents, they could have actually been threatening to swoon. Made sense at the time.

But “I swan,” it turns out, has nothing to do with actual swans or, for that matter, with swooning. “I swan” is used as a rough equivalent to “I do declare,” what linguists call an “exclamatory asseveration” of surprise, and it seems to have originated in northern England as a dialectical pronunciation (probably originally “Is’ wan”) of “I shall warrant,” meaning “I declare” or “I swear.” (A related form, “I swan to man,” is a euphemistic form of “I swear to God.”) Although the dialectical pronunciation that produced “I swan” from “I shall warrant” comes from England, “I swan” itself is considered a US phrase because it became so common here after it first appeared in the early 19th century (“I swan if it warn’t enough to make a feller dry to see the hogsheads of rum and molasses,” 1844). At about the same time, the related English dialect phrase “Is’ wan ye” (“I shall warrant you”) produced the US slang verb “swanny,” meaning “to swear or promise” (“‘Capt. Center, didn’t I tell you Van Buren was not the man?’ ‘Yes you did, I swanney’,” 1839). This “swanny,” by the way, is not related in any way to the Swannee River immortalized by Stephen Foster in his song “The Old Folks at Home.”

Speaking of mysterious words born of weird pronunciations, folks in New England may be familiar with the verb “vum,” meaning, as “swan” does, “to swear or promise” (“But the Deacon swore (as Deacons do, With an ‘I dew vum’, or an ‘I tell yeou’,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1858). This “vum” arose in the late 18th century as a dialectical pronunciation of the simple word “vow.”


More popcorn?

Dear Word Detective: I just read your article about “lukewarm” and you gave “tepid” as one of the synonyms (or actually the Oxford English Dictionary did). I’ve used that word since I first heard it from The Naked Chef, where Jamie Oliver was making bread and said that one needs a pint of tepid water. I find it a very nice word, but don’t know where it came from. — Topi Linkala.

Wow, cooking shows. I’ve never watched one. But I’ve always wondered how that works. Is the idea that you take notes during the show? Or are you supposed to record it and then play it back in your kitchen while you follow along? Maybe if I were into cooking in the first place I’d be able to retain what the host says and does, but watching people chop things makes me nervous. In fact, cooking in general makes me nervous. I usually cook by hitting “Start” on the microwave and running out of the room.

“Tepid” is a nice word, isn’t it? It’s not threatening like “icy” or “piping,” let alone scary like “scalding” or “boiling” or “sizzling.” Maybe it’s because I have poor eye-hand coordination, but I prefer to stick to food that can’t actually, y’know, hurt me. And I’d prefer that my obituary not include the words “bizarre fajita accident.” So to me “tepid,” meaning “moderately warm,” is, as Goldilocks found, “just right.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does indeed employ “tepid” in its definition of “lukewarm,” and, logically, lists “lukewarm” as a direct synonym in its definition of “tepid.” The two words are, in fact, nearly identical in meaning, with the only shade of difference in usage being that “tepid” is more often applied to liquids than to solids (“Let the Water stand in the Sun till it grow tepid,” 1691).

As I explained in that column last year, “lukewarm” represents a combination of “warm” with the somewhat older English adjective “luke” (or “lew”), which itself meant “warm” (meaning that “lukewarm” etymologically amounts to a redundant “warm-warm”). “Luke” came from the Old English word “hleowe,” which meant, amazingly, “warm,” and which in turn seemed to be rooted in an Indo-European root word that meant “weakly warm.” Yes, folks, it’s “warm” all the way down.

I wish that “tepid” had a more interesting history than “lukewarm,” but it is, if anything, even more boring. “Tepid” comes directly from the Latin “tepidus,” meaning (I can’t stand it) “lukewarm,” which was a form of the Latin verb “tepere,” meaning “to cover in purple polka dots.” Sorry. It really just meant “to be warm.” Wake me when this is over.

“Tepid” first appeared in English in the early 15th century in its literal sense of “slightly warm,” not long after “lukewarm” appeared in the late 14th century meaning the same darn thing. Both words, however, became infinitely more useful shortly after their appearance when they both developed figurative uses. Unfortunately, the figurative senses of the two words are, quelle surprise, largely identical. By 1522, “lukewarm” was being applied to people who were thought to have few strong feelings, passions or interests. To be “lukewarm” on a subject was to be indifferent or apathetic about it (“Some, that called him the lukewarme Doctour, and likened him to milke from the Cowe,” 1593). Similarly, by 1513, “tepid” was used as a label for people who seemed to lack any real interest or conviction in much of anything (“Some tepid little man, vain and sensitive — the kind of man who broods,” Agatha Christie, 1941).