kinky /’kɪŋkɪ/

Like most people, my life is governed by Chance. Those folks who think their lives are dictated by some some of Order are sadly mistaken. God not only plays dice with the universe but the Universe itself is nothing more than a giant dice shaker with an infinite number of ivories.

So earlier this week, word lover June Templeton happened to join The Word Guy’s merry band on Twitter. Ever intrigued by why folks might want to receive daily doses of random etymologies in 140 characters or less, I clicked through the twitter tracks to find June’s blog, June’s Temple. In her brief introduction, she writes:

I love reading, writing and dreaming. I have a thing for horses (not in a kinky way) and a thing for dashing fairy-tale princes (sometimes in a kinky way).

Kinky. Now there’s a word with a personal history. Without much thinking at all, the word conjures up images of Diana Rigg in a skin-tight leather catsuit and kinky boots. This was back in the late sixties when I was still in single digits but becoming old enough to find Emma Peel somewhat visually distracting. By the 70’s I was able to appreciate the full Freudian implications of the effect she had had on my tender young pre-pubescent psyche.

One interesting etymology of her name (there is another) comes from the desire of the original writers to have a character who had “man appeal,” which became shortened to “M appeal” and thus by pure phonetic association “Emma Peel.” Of course, purist phoneticians will leap up at this point and set me straight by mentioning that the stress patterns for “M appeal” and “Emma Peel” are different – /’ɛməˌpiəl/ versus /ˌɛmə’piəl/ – with the tonic stress shifting from front to middle.  But tish and pshaw, I retort! Diana Rigg in a catsuit will trump the International Phonetic Alphabet any day.

The reason that kinky comes to mind in this context is that the use of the word to describe fetishistic activity can be traced to the beginning of the 60’s when it refered to perverted sexual activity. The English novelist, Colin MacInnes wrote in his 1959 novel, Absolute Beginners;

Suze… meets lots of kinky characters… and acts as agent for me getting orders from them for my pornographic photos.

As an adjective, it became used frequently to describe the thigh-high leather boots used by dominatrixes in sado-masochistic games. Thus the phrase “kinky boots” entered the lexicon – and the world of the Avengers. In the original episodes, Honor Blackman played the role of Cathy Gale, who, like Emma Peel, was a “femme fatale” figure and dressed in boots.

In 1964, Blackman and her co-star, Patrick Macnee (who played John Steed), recorded a song called “Kinky Boots,” a kitschy piece of sixties trivia that was mercifully less than 2 minutes in length. Surprisingly it became a hit in 1990, by which time it had been out of circulation long enough to acquire cult status.

As an adjective, kinky was used in the mid-19th century with the meaning “Having, or full of, kinks; closely curled or twisted: said esp. of the hair of some races.” (OED).  The American humorist, William T. Thompson wrote;

I happened to call one of the nigger waiters ‘boy’. The kinky-headed cuss looked at me sideways, and rolled the whites of his eyes at me.

This was in 1848 in his collection of stories, Major Jones’ Sketches of Travel, and at a time when the word nigger was shifting from being a neutral generic for black-skinned individuals to a pejorative. In fact, the work kinky was used often in reference to describe the characteristic hair of the anthropological negroid type. Later, this extended to any hair: The American musician, writer, and politician Kinky Friedman was not born with this name but acquired it at college on account of his curly top!

Kinky Friedman: A rare hair shot

By the latter part of the century, it was used colloquially in some parts of the US to describe someone who was a little eccentric or crotchety. In Longest Journey (1907) E. M. Forster wrote; “This jaundiced young philosopher, with his kinky view of life, was too much for him.” There is also evidence that at around the same time, it was used in some dialects to mean lively, spry, or energetic.

In the 1920’s, kinky took on a special use among the criminal fraternity to refer to something that was stolen or dishonestly acquired. This continued in the 1950’s, as demonstrated in William and Florence Simpson’s Hockshop, where they say;

Canfield… was never accused… of having ‘kinky’ gambling paraphernalia. By that I mean dice and cards and roulette wheels that gave the house an unfair advantage.

Also during the 20th century, the word was used as a noun to refer to;

a. A person with ‘kinky’ hair.
b.
An object dishonestly obtained.
c.
A sexually abnormal or perverted person.

This switch from an adjective to a noun during the 1900’s is deliciously kinky because the adjective kinky originally came from the noun, kink back in the 17th century as a nautical term. The OED defines it as follows:

A short twist or curl in a rope, thread, hair, wire, or the like, at which it is bent upon itself; esp. when stiff so as to catch or cause obstruction.

Lexicographer Edward Phillips had an entry in his The new world of English words: or, a general dictionary first published in 1658:

Keenk (in Navigation), is when a Rope which should run smooth in the Block, hath got a little turn, and runs as it were double.

In the 19th century, the word took on the meaning of a twist in the neck, or a crick, and an example can be found in Melville’s classic Moby Dick;

I tore myself out of it in such a hurry that I gave myself a kink in the neck.

Ultimately, the word is likely to derive from the Dutch (like the English, another nautical nation) word, kink, meaning twist or curl. In turn, this has cognates in German of kink and kinke, as well is Danish and Swedish kink. Icelandic has the word kikna for “to bend at the knees” and keikr meaning “bending back.”

From these we can infer a common root of something akin to *kink– or *kik-” meaning “to bend or twist.”

There is one more kink to this post, and that’s also related to my childhood in the north of England. If I tried to go out to play when it was cold, I was told to wear something warm so I wouldn’t “catch your death of chincough.” I never knew what the chincough was and why it would lead to my ultimate demise but while researching kinky, I found the answer.

The word kink is also Scottish and northern English dialect for a fit of coughing or spasm of laughter. This was the basis for the word kinkcough, a spasmodic and potentially fatal type of coughing, which we now recognize as whooping cough. The softening of the initial hard /k/ to the affricate /tʃ/ lead to the “chincough” of my childhood.

This version of kink comes from a slightly different root: The Old English cincian meaning “to gasp or pant with difficulty.” Clearly there is the sense of a kink in the air tract but the chinchough represents a different tributary of the kinky river.

And as a final thought, just remember:

Kinky is using a feather. Perverted is using the whole chicken.

Wordle: kinky - etymology

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Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary, Word Origins

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