The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s the origin of “hinky”?

Q: I heard you discussing the word “hinky” on the air. A friend of mine from California uses it to mean “shifty” or “jumpy” or “nervous.” It has a vaguely criminal connotation. Did you ever find out where it comes from?

A: The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has an entry for “hincty,” which it describes as a Black English term dating from the 1920s. It originally meant snobbish, fastidious, or aloof. Random House says the origin is unknown. The Oxford English Dictionary says some people have suggested “hincty” might be a clipped form of “handkerchief-head” (that is, an Uncle Tom), but the connection hasn’t been demonstrated.

Back to Random House: A later variant (spelled variously “hincty,” “hinkty,” “hankty,” and finally “hinky”), is described as an underground or police term for suspicious, wary, paranoid, nervous, jumpy, or even arousing suspicion (as in “Something hinky is going on”). Urbandictionary.com describes “hinky” as meaning, among other things, “Something as yet undefinable is wrong, out of place; not quite right.” Many online slang sites say much the same.

The question arises whether these are really two different terms—one meaning snobbish, the other meaning paranoid—or whether one meaning evolved from another.

It’s hard to say. But it’s worth noting that the OED has an entry for “hink,” an old and obscure Scots noun meaning a hesitation or a misgiving; a separate verb form means to limp or falter. This might indicate that the “hinky” that means nervous or jumpy is a different “hinky” altogether. We may never know.