Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Real Humdinger of an Etymology

On the latest installment of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I look into the origins of the slang term humdinger, which hit it big around the turn of the 20th century to refer to someone or something remarkable or impressive.

Humdinger, like other humorous-sounding words, has attracted some fanciful origin stories. Some are complete fabrications, like the story that circulated online some years back that the word comes from the name of one Arnold Humdinger, who tried to land his biplane on the summit of Mount Everest. But the best etymological evidence suggests that humdinger is something of a mash-up of two pre-existing words with similar meanings, hummer and dinger.

Hummer has slangy meanings going all the way back to the 17th century. In Thomas Otway's Restoration comedy The Soldier's Fortune (1681), a character has this to say of a vivacious woman: "she's a hummer; such a bona roba, ah." ( Bona roba comes from Italian buonaroba meaning "good dress" or "good stuff," a term for a "a good wholesome plum-cheeked wench," as John Florio's 1598 Italian-English dictionary puts it.) It could also refer to a big or impressive lie, according to the first English slang dictionary, published in 1699.

In 19th-century American slang, the hummer label was often applied to a fast horse, ship, or train, something that hums right along. It could also refer to a person who is extraordinary in some way. And as an even bigger compliment, you could call someone "a hummer from Hummerville" (as in this example from the 1888 edition of Puck's Library).

Dinger, meanwhile, developed similar meanings based on old meaning of ding that survived in some dialects of English. As an article on "Yorkshire Dialect Words" in the Oct. 22, 1892 Leeds Mercury explained, ding could mean "to strike, push, hurl, batter, or bruise with energy, wrath, or forcefulness." And dinger, by extension, could mean "anything of a superlative character, as in size, quality, &c. 'It's a dinger.'"

The two words fused as humdinger in American usage as early as 1883. On June 4th of that year, the Daily Enterprise of Livingston, Montana published its first issue (soon after the founding of the town along the Northern Pacific Railway), and the front page carried this whimsical item:

Bill Smith, our town prognosticator, reports that fifty years hence Livingston will celebrate her "Golden Jubilee" anniversary on July 2, 3 and 4 with parades, a round-up, and a pageant. The show, he says, will be a humdinger. All citizens of Montana who are still around at that time are advised to lay their plans to attend.

The 1883 example was discovered by Stephen Goranson and shared on the American Dialect Society mailing list. A cluster of slightly later examples from the mid-1890s turn up in the newspapers of Rockford, Illinois, including in a department store's advertisements for "baby cabs" (a regional term for baby carriages).

Daily Register-Gazette (Rockford, Ill.), Apr. 7, 1896, p. 2

By the time that the American Dialect Society began collecting lists of regionalisms in its publication Dialect Notes in the early 20th century, humdinger had spread to many other parts of the country. It was attested in Nebraska in 1905 and northwest Arkansas in 1909. The Arkansas word list gives an imagined exchange among students: "The lecture course this year is a dinger." "Yes, it's a hum dinger."

While dinger no longer refers to something remarkable (except in baseball, where it can refer to a home run), humdinger still survives, even if it has a quaint air to it. A slang term that lasts for such a long time truly is a humdinger.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.