February 21, 2006

On Winkie

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:43 pm by yisraelmedad


Yisrael Medad wrote:

I excerpted the following from a movie review in which a film was described as: “with its winkly-twinkly touches of magic realism and its travel-brochure sexuality.” Now, my family name, before I Hebraized it, was Winkelman. Winkel, or Winkle, in German, means a corner. When I spent time in England, I was informed that to winkle meant to maneuver oneself out of a tricky situation but usually with a negative connotation in that one’s escape was achieved unfairly. My nickname, “winkie,” I found out, was, in British slang usage, a male sexual organ. Getting back to the quotation: what is the definition of winkly-twinkly and where did it originate? Was it the 1950s TV character Winkie-Dink?

You’ve actually got a few different etymologies going on here. Let’s start with the easy one first (yes, I believe in immediate gratification, dessert first, all that good stuff).

Winkly-twinkly and Winkie-Dink are both pretty straightforward examples of reduplication–when all or part of a stem is repeated. Reduplication is the way that some languages form verb tenses or other inflected forms. In English, it’s most often used to make a term or name more familiar, to make a slightly distasteful term seem more innocuous, or to belittle something. You get this in terms like pooh-pooh, peepee, and artsy-fartsy, or in the names of Chicken Little’s companions–Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Foxy Loxy, Ducky Lucky, and Turkey Lurkey. Usually the main word–in your example, twinkly–comes first, but it’s fairly common for this to be reversed, especially for emphasis. For example, the term loosey-goosey is used in British English to disparage ideas or practices that are considered to be too permissive or unstructured.

The writer of the review most likely made up the expression winkly-twinkly to show that she wasn’t impressed or fooled by the fancy effects of the film. One of the meanings of wink is synonymous with twinkle, ‘to shine with little flashes of light’. So your term does not come from winkle, but rather from the verb wink, which was wincian in Old English and winken in Middle English (remember Winken, Blinken, and Nod?). The cognate for this in German is winken, which means ‘to wave or signal’ and can include winking as a signal–nothing to do with corners or body parts.

In fact, the German Winkel ‘angle, corner, nook’ has only an accidental similarity in form to the English winkle; they’re completely unrelated. The latter is a short form of periwinkle, that snail-like marine creature (oh, okay, gastropod) that you see on plateaux de fruits de mer in restaurants in Europe. (It’s also the name of the caddisfly larva that builds itself a protective tube to live in on rocks in lakes and rivers, which you would only eat if you were really desperate. But the only area of the US in which a caddisworm is called a periwinkle is the Northwest, according to Joan Houston Hall of the Dictionary of American Regional English –which finally explained the blank stares I always got when I told people about seeing periwinkles in rivers in Washington state as a teenager.)

At any rate, (peri)winkle is the main British term for the marine snail, having been settled on after a few centuries of confusion, possible scribal errors, and conflation of the spelling with that of the (again unrelated) botanical periwinkle, which you can hunt down in our Unabridged dictionary if you’re so inclined. Winkles have to be removed from their shells with winkle pickers, which is also the slang term for the pointed boots that the British Teddy Boys wore. You can see where the ‘getting out of a tight situation’ meaning came from. And, of course, the small snaily thing looks enough like an uncircumcised boy’s penis that the slang terms winkle and winkie meaning ‘boy’s penis’ aren’t too surprising. Since willie/willy is also British slang for ‘penis’ (any size), just imagine the giggles from modern British children reading “Wee Willy Winkie.”



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