Museum of Nearly Dead Words

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Museum of Nearly Dead Words

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon Oct 04, 2010 6:54 am

Museum of Nearly Dead Words

There are those words which are obsolete – no longer in use; dead. And then there are those words which are almost obsolete – nearly dead. These are words that are rarely used and teeter on the edge of extinction, but are not there quite yet – ‘antiquated’ or ‘archaic’ are descriptions which come to mind.

Below is the first (or perhaps the last) in a list of such words which I and others may add to as we come across these dying critters.

While reading the second book in the Baroque Trilogy (1st is Quicksilver; 2nd is The Confusion; and 3rd is The System of the World by Neal Stephenson – doorstops all, but I’m loving them so far), I came across the word ‘ninehammers.’ From the context it is definitely something derogatory, but I was curious how the ‘nine’ and ‘hammers’ fit into the picture.
<2004 “. . . it is well known that Lothar is banker to Sophie and Ernst August, your patrons. What can you tell me of this man and what motivates him? For most Alchemists are ninehammers and dilettantes; but if my hypothesis is correct, he takes it seriously.”—The Confusion by Neal Stephenson,page 264>
In his trilogy Stephenson offers up a books of historical fiction that contains a tremendous amount of detail on life and events in the late 17th and early 18th centuries in England, Europe, and elsewhere. Historical events, war, palace intrigue, pirates on the Barbary coast, the details of everyday life, clothing, wigs, sanitation, finance, ships, cities, alchemy, architecture, medical practices, politics – you name it – it’s all there. Some of the participants – Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibnitz, Louis XIV, etc., various ministers, Dukes, Duchesses and other characters – are real and some are fictional, but reportedly all the real parts, including descriptions of cities, buildings, etc., have been meticulously researched. However, he feels no compunction about throwing in anachronisms and other ridiculousness now and then and I found these pretty funny (e.g. Leibnitz relates in a letter how he was looking down from the window of his room in Venice at two gondoliers having a heated argument in their respective gondolas over some incident – perhaps one had passed too close to the other or had maybe bumped the other – and mentioned how Venetians described such incidents as “canal rage.”

Turns out that I couldn’t find anything on ‘ninehammer,’ but came to find that he must have been referring to NINNYHAMMER (spellings from that period often differed, or maybe he just had it wrong). And it just so happened that the OED had revised NINNYHAMMER in its June, 2010, update. In the 1989 edition the word was hyphenated as ninny-hammer (1592) and defined as a ‘simpleton,’ with its most recent quote being from 1853.

Here’s what they had in the 2010 update:


NINNYHAMMER noun (colloquial and regional) [1592]: A blockhead; a fool or braggart. [Apparently from ninny, ‘a simpleton; a fool’ (perhaps from ‘innocent’) + hammer, of unknown origin (perhaps compare to earlier ‘hammer-headed’ (figuratively, dull in intellect; stupid; beetle-headed) [[ninnyhammer = ninny]]

In Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words he had this to say at the beginning of his posting on ninnyhammer:
For the most part it has vanished except in works that consciously seek to evoke a bygone age through antique language.


NINNYHAMMER noun [late 16th century – 1910s]: A fool, a simpleton; by extension a cuckold [?ninny (U.K. Underworld a ‘canting whining beggar’ or Standard English ninny, a fool + dialect hammer, a clumsy person or verb to stammer]

The following are some quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1592 “I, Whoreson Ninihammer, that wilt assault a man & have no stronger weapons.”—Strange Newes by T. Nashe> [Note that the spelling of ninny in this quote, nini, is not that far away from NINE]>

<1622 “I might have beene a scholler, learn'd my Grammar, But I have lost all like a Ninnie-hammer”—Good Newes & Bad by S. Rowlands, page 38>.

<1767 “Numskuls, doddypoles, dunderheads, ninny-hammers . . . and other unsavory appellations.”—The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by L. Sterne, IX. xxv. page 99>

<1853 “The predominant feature of a ninny-hammer is the enormous development of his self-conceit.”—Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (1873), page 748>

<1927 “If your readers have nothing better to do I can start them out on a list of ‘Big Johns’ which they can go on adding to until they are tired of such a ninnyhammer's trick. My list: . . . John J. Pershing John Pierpont Morgan . . .”—Time Magazine, 14 February>

<1954 “You're nowt but a ninnyhammer, Sam Gamgee.”—Two Towers by R. R. Tolkien, iv. i. page 214>

<1987 “. . . why are you the only person in the whole world with a ninnyhammer for a cousin?”—Washington Post, 20 November>

<1991 “What wizen-scrotumed ninnyhammer wrote that, I wonder?”—Murther & Walking Spirits by R. Davies, vi. page 255>

<1994 “I already eat as slowly as I can without looking like an affected ninnyhammer, so my alternatives seem to be to stare at him as he eats, or to eat more food myself, though I am already full.”—Washington Post, 19 January>

<2002 “Just like the next silly ninnyhammer, I often find myself listening to those news items about the latest vitamin craze or amazing new herbal supplement so I can immediately run down to Walgreen's and waste another $10.95 to improve my life even more.”—The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), 6 September>

<2006 “And now she felt bad at having unburdened herself — or half unburdened herself anyway — to her friends, who must think her a complete ninnyhammer.”—Simply Unforgetable by M. Balogh, page 161>

2009 “E-mail us with pithy comments from anywhere in the world:, Name and town, name and town, name and town if you wish to opine. And please, when writing to the ‘Factor’ here's the word of the day. Do not be a ninnyhammer.”—Fox News, 16 November> [[Note: Bill O'Reilly used it on his program on 21 separate dates between 2006 and 2009 on Fox News, not necessarily all self-referential as one might suppose.]]

Ken G – October 3, 2010

Re: Museum of Nearly Dead Words

Post by Wizard of Oz » Thu Oct 07, 2010 3:32 am

.. I remember my Scottish grandmother using ninny when chastising us kids .. it was always a soft rebuke and generally used when we had done something that was immature or silly .. or perhaps when we were whining and being stubborn about doing something .. ninny must share heritage with nincompoop .. but I am at a loss to understand why it was necessary to add hammer to the end of the word ?? .. I do not share the opinion, learned and inviting as it may seem, of some connection with hammer headed ..

.. Aussie slang has dill to fill the same hole ..
Austalian Oxford dill (2) n Aust colloq 1 a fool or simpleton. 2 the victim of a trickster. [ORIGIN: apparently back-formation from dilly (2).]

dilly (2) adj esp Aust colloq. dated 1. odd or eccentric 2. foolish, stupid, mad. [ORIGIN: perhaps from DAFT + SILLY.]
.. the Macquarie IV also adds an incompetent to the list of dillish qualities .. but dill in social usage by an Aussie is more than that .. it is an all encompassing word that says it all in the mind of the reader or listener .. .. the oft heard epithet ”You’re a bloody dill!” is as encompassing as it is dismissive .. one of those Aussie expressions that foreigners had better use with caution as the situation, tone of voice and body language can just as easily get you into a fight as cement a mateship .. some recent examples ..
Sydney Morning Herald - Mar 10th , 2010
Apparently some dill thought it amusing to pass around pictures of her.

Daily Telegraph, November 15th , 2008
The first is that Bush is a lame-duck President, in his last two months of office, very unpopular, and widely regarded as a dill anyway. No one much cares at this stage of his presidency what is said about him., October 6th , 2009
The LNP {{Liberal-National Party}} bungled when it failed to provide a controversy-free Dutton pre-selection. The bloke would look like a dill if he listened to more endorsement promises from LNP management.

Herald Sun, November 08th , 2007
"If a dill shouts out 'no-ball' we won't throw them out of the ground," Young said.
"Hopefully the umpires won't be saying that either."

Herald Sun, November 02nd , 2006
Look, the serious point here is Brendan Fevola is not a good man with the drink.
He is a dill and an unpleasant dill at that.
But that's not big news. He has a history of alcoholic indiscretions and only this season promised he had changed his ways "because my missus told me to".

NZ Herald, Wednesday Apr 12th , 2006
Vaile's performance was ridiculed by cartoonists, opinion writers and commentators, with columnist Matt Price writing in the Australian: "During 87 minutes in the dock, Vaile transparently made a dill of himself."

The Age, March 31st , 2006
Shane Warne, for one, was heard to call Andre Nel a "soft c---" and a "f------ dill" in South Africa's first innings. But Greig insisted that Australia's sledging extended beyond that on the final day.

The Age, November 12th , 2005
IF EVER the subject of David Hicks comes up in conversation, this Australian citizen is dismissed in a bevy of Aussie colloquialisms that describe his lack of judgement or intellectual fortitude. He just has to be either a prize dill, a young misguided fool, a folly-footed adventurer, an unlucky soldier of fortune, or even a bone-headed terrorist.

Sunday Times, April 5th , 2005
Pell senior, an Anglican, was dismayed when the young George said he was going to train for the priesthood. He told a local nun his son might just as well have been a “bloody dill” but added: “You probably don’t want dills, do you?”

Sydney Morning Herald, August 12th , 2003
The diuretic pill debacle which put him out of the game for 12 months also paints a picture of a man who is, at least, a dill and at worst a bumbling, offensive bighead.

ABC PM Archive - Tuesday, 28th May, 2002
Admiral Barrie's career is approaching a less-than-glorious end, after he had to correct his testimony on the children overboard issue and he was asked at a media conference if he felt like a dill.
.. however with my limited resources I was unable to date anything much earlier or to get any lead on how old the word is in Aussie usage .. however one that I did find that no doubt will allow our American friends to claim this word too is ..
The Baltimore Sun,`‎Pay-Per-View - The Sun - Apr 26th , 1964
It's not what you'd call a hard yacker to get to Australia. ... Now it would take a bloody dill not to understand that it's not hard work to get down here. ...
.. as I was not able to see the full quote I was not able to confirm my suspicion that it is an Australian author speaking about Aussie slang or some such ..maybe others may be able to widen the historical information ?? ..

WoZ who has often been a dill
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

Re: Museum of Nearly Dead Words

Post by JANE DOErell » Thu Oct 07, 2010 7:07 pm

I remember ninny and nincompoop from the late 40s used by people along the rivers where Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee come close together.

Re: Museum of Nearly Dead Words

Post by trolley » Thu Oct 07, 2010 10:30 pm

When I was young, my older brother was always explaining the mysteries of the world to me. Man, I idolized that guy. He told me that once there was this little boy, named Nink who was so stupid that his mother actually had to remind him when it was time to go to the bathroom.
She would call to him when he was outside playing, "Nink, come poop." Ever since then people have said that to mean someone foolish. My brother could answer any question.

Re: Museum of Nearly Dead Words

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Oct 08, 2010 9:48 pm

Wiz et al, I think there is the possibility that the hammer in NINNYHAMMER came from hammerheaded. The first appearance in print of HAMMERHEAD, the noun, was in 1532, and of HAMMERHEADED, the adjective, in 1552. NINNYHAMMER made its appearance in 1592 (all according to the OED). So it strikes me that it is conceivable that the NINNY and the HAMMER of HAMMERHEADED could have merged to produce NINNYHAMMER, a sort of NINNY^2.


HAMMER-HEAD [[hyphenated and not]] noun: A head, likened to a hammer; a blockhead.
<1581 “Your owne foolish lying wordes properly forged in that hammerhead of yours.”—Walter Haddon Against Osorius translation by J. Bell, page 4b>

<1628 “The Hammer-heads sate lately vpon like consultation.”—The Practique Theorist's Panegyrick (1629) by J. Gaule, page 216>

<1947 “The meanest old hammerheads under her tutelage became as cooing doves.”—The Bar Nothing Ranch (1949), xvi. Page 151>
HAMMER-HEADED [[hyphenated and not]] adjective: figuratively Dull in intellect; stupid.
<1552 “Hammer headed knave,”—Tuditanus by R. Huloet>

<1600 “Hammer-headed. . . clowns.”—Summers Last Will and Testament by T. Nashe, Epilogue in Hazl. Dodsley, VIII. page 92>

<1855 “You hammer-headed woman.”—Little Dorrit (Household Edition) by Dickens, page 402/2>
(all above quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary)

Now, onward and upward to DILL noun (see Wiz above):

CASSELL'S DICTIONARY OF SLANG adds some other derivation possibilities for both the origin and later use:

DILL noun [1940s and still in use] ( Australia/New Zealand/U.S.): A fool.[? from dillypot [1940s-1960], a fool, backformation; the late 20th century UK use may also be attributed to a abbreviation of the comic named Dilbert (slightly transformed by the comedian Lenny Henry into his bumptious character Delbert Wilkins); also dildo [1960s and still in use] A general term of abuse, a fool, an incompetent.]

The earliest quote that I found for DILL was from 1941.

The following are quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Oxford):
<1941 Dil, a simpleton or fool. (2) A trickster's victim.”—Dictionary of Australian Slang by Baker, page 23>

<1945 “Them dills’ll never find out who done him in.”—Downhill is Easier by Gavin Casey, page 197>

<1949 “Sydney has developed its own picturesque slang. They talk of . . . ‘a dill’ (a weak character).”—Evening News (London), 16 February, page 4/6>

<1957 “Well don't stand there like a dill.” Ibid. “Joe said they were a ‘lot o' dills’.”—They're a Weird Mob (1958) by ‘N. Culotta’ (John Patrick O'Grady), i. page 13; Ibid. ix. page 133>

<1961 “I am the same dill that always stuck around!”—Riders in the Chariot by P. White, xv. page 503>

<1966 “Waldo decided not to listen to any further dill’s drivel.”—The Solid Mandala by Patrick White, page 46>

<1969 “At the start he felt a bit of a dill in a wig and robes.“—Telegraph (Brisbane), 28 August page 2/7>

<1970 “She acted like a dill. She shouldn't have antagonised us.”—New Zealand Listener (Auckland), 12 October, page 12/5>

<1982 “Would I be going too far in saying that there must be some dills in Australia’s diplomatic and military outposts.”—Bulletin (Sydney, Australia ). 30 November, page 60>

<1994 “Blight said ‘you are being called either a genius or a dill . . . it comes with the territory.”—The Australian (Sydney), 3 October, page 29>

DILLY adjective: a) See quote 1873. b) Foolish, stupid, mad.


DILLY: Foolish, silly, ‘dope-looking’; having lost one’s presence of mind. obsolete dilly: Cranky, queer (English dialect OED 1873

All of the following quotes are from the Oxford English Dictionary and A Dictionary of Australian Colloquialisms (Oxford) by G. A. Wilkes:
<1873 “Dilly, . . . cranky, queer.”—Glossary of Somersetshire By Williams & Jones, page 11>

<1906 “Who should come sprintin' upstairs but me nibs, pale's er blessed egg, hair on end—fair dilly.”— Fact'ry 'ands by E. Dyson, xvi. Page 214>

<1915 “Ther's a Gawd 'Oo's leaning near To watch our dilly little lives down 'ere.”—in The Bulletin (Sydney, Australia) by C. J. Dennis, 15 April, page 43/2>

<1935 “‘Bless you, lady, bless you,’ he says, all dilly with joy, see thinkin’ he’s on a good thing.”—Tiburon by Kylie Tennant, page 21>

<1942 “Foolish; nonsensical; ridiculous, . . . dilly.”— American Thesaurus of Slang by Berrey & Van Den Bark, §151/10>

<1949 “Cripes, it’d drive a bloke dilly.”—Harvest by John K. Ewers. Page 204>
Incidentally, in the U.S. the only DILLY that I am familiar with is “something or someone regarded as remarkable, unusual, etc.: a dilly of a movie.” From Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.

Ken – October 8, 2010

Re: Museum of Nearly Dead Words

Post by Erik_Kowal » Tue Jan 18, 2011 10:20 pm

A couple of months ago NPR featured a story about the website Savethewords, whose purpose NPR described as follows:

"November 9, 2010

The website offers the chance to bring arcane words back to life. Web surfers can "adopt" a word like "historiaster," which means "contemptible historian," or "obarmate", which means "to arm against." By adopting the word, people pledge to use it in everyday speech and writing. The site has attracted media attention from around the world. Upon investigation, it turns out to be the project of an advertising agency. The office of Young and Rubicam in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, was hired to promote the print version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Robert Siegel tells us about it, and we hear from Y&R creative director Edward Ong, who helped create the site, and has been astounded at its worldwide appeal."

Click the NPR link to hear the story and/or read the transcript.
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