The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you bored to flinders?

Q: Any idea of the origins of the phrase “bored to flinders”? I looked up the word “flinders,” but can’t reason out a connection with boredom!

A: Someone who’s “bored to flinders” is bored to pieces. The word “flinders” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “fragments, pieces, splinters.”

So in the phrase “bored to flinders,” the word is used in a figurative way.

The word was first recorded in English, according to the OED, in Golagros and Gawane, a Scottish poem published in a pamphlet in 1508:

“Thair speris in the feild in flendris gart ga.” (“Their spears went to flinders in the field.”)

This seems to echo a line from the 12th-century French epic poem La Chanson de Roland, usually translated as “Right to the hilt, his spear in flinders flew.”

The word “flinders” may be Scandinavian in origin, since according to the OED, it’s similar to the modern Norwegian word flindra, meaning a thin chip or splinter.

But it’s often used figuratively, as in this line from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Poganuc People (1878): “Parson Cushing could knock that air all to flinders.”

(When the speaker here says “that air,” he’s referring to a sermon by another minister, one who “don’t weigh much ’longside o’ Parson Cushing.”)

Though it’s not cited in the OED, there’s another reference to “flinders” in Stowe’s novel. In the chapter “Election Day in Poganuc,” a character says, “Well, Doctor, we’re smashed. Democrats beat us all to flinders.”

It’s a colorful word, and it’s still sometimes used to good effect. The OED has some modern citations, including this one from the novel Speed (1970), by William S. Burroughs Jr.:

“About noon, the transmission went all to flinders and the car would only run in first.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation a bit.)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang records another form of the word, “flindereens,” apparently a slang variant that combines “flinders” and “smithereens.”

We found an example in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel Seasoned Timber (1939), which is set in Vermont: “Ezry, d’y remember the time they busted the Ashley town snowplow t’flindereens?”

The specific phrase “bored to flinders” doesn’t appear in the OED. But we’ve read it in many books, including David Mamet in Conversation (2001), an anthology edited by Leslie Kane.

In an interview conducted in 1994, the critic John Lahr asked Mamet whether he was a bad student in school. The playwright replied: “I was a nonstudent. No interest, just bored to flinders.”

As we all know, there are many others ways of expressing ennui: “bored to pieces,” “bored to death,” “bored to tears,” “bored to distraction,” “bored stiff,” “bored rigid,” “bored silly,” and so on.

If you’re not bored yet, you might be interested in a recent post of ours that discusses whether the word “bore” that refers to tedium is related to the much older word “bore” that refers to making a hole.

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