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.
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.”<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>
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:
OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY
NINNYHAMMER noun (colloquial and regional) : 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.
CASSELL’S DICTIONARY OF SLANG
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: OReilly@FOXNews.com, OReilly@FOXNews.com. 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