The Grammarphobia Blog

Let’s get kinky!

Q: We’ve had the Fierstein-Lauper take on Kinky Boots. How about Grammarphobia’s take on “kinky”?

A: We’re fans of Harvey Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper, but we haven’t seen their musical about a drag queen who helps save a struggling shoe factory. From what we’ve read, it’s a lot of fun (though not all that kinky).

As for the adjective “kinky,” it has a twisted history that begins in Old Icelandic nearly a thousand years ago.

The ultimate source of the adjective, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is kikna, a word in Old Icelandic that meant to bend at the knees.

Chambers says the term passed through Middle Low German (kinke) into Dutch (kink), where it came to mean a twist in a rope.

When English borrowed the term from Dutch in the 1600s, it referred to a twist or curl in thread, rope, hair, and so on, according to the etymology dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest written example of the noun “kink” in English is from a 1678 edition of The New World of Words, a dictionary compiled by Edward Phillips:

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 early 1800s, according to the OED, the term took on various figurative meanings, including an odd notion (that is, a mental twist) and an odd but clever way of doing something.

One of the earliest examples of the figurative usage is from a Nov. 24, 1803, letter by Thomas Jefferson:

“Should the judges take a kink in their heads in favor of leaving the present laws of Louisiana unaltered.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

In the mid-20th century, according to Oxford, “kink” took on a new twist:

“A sexually abnormal person; one who practises sexual perversions; loosely, an eccentric, a person wearing noticeably unusual clothes, behaving in a startling manner, etc.”

The earliest OED citation for this new sense is from the January 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar: “His phone is ex-directory because of all the kinks who used to phone at 2 a.m.”

Returning to your question about “kinky,” we’ll have to back up a bit.

When the adjective “kinky” showed up in English in the 1800s, Oxford says, it meant “having, or full of, kinks; closely curled or twisted: said esp. of the hair of some races.”

The first OED example—from a Jan. 6, 1844, entry in the Congressional Globe, a predecessor of the Congressional Record—is a reference to a black person’s “kinkey” hair.

In the late 1800s, the adjective took on the sense of odd or eccentric. The earliest OED example of this sense is from the Jan. 2, 1889, issue of the Sportsman magazine:

“The kinky ones and the worthy ones who play hole-and-corner with society.”

Here’s a clearer example from The Longest Journey, a 1907 novel by E. M. Forster: “This jaundiced young philosopher, with his kinky view of life, was too much for him.”

In the mid-20th century, the OED says, the adjective “kinky” came to describe someone “given to sexual behaviour regarded as strange or unconventional.”

The dictionary’s first example is from Colin MacInnes’s 1959 novel Absolute Beginners: Suze … meets lots of kinky characters … and acts as agent for me getting orders from them for my pornographic photos.”

The adjective soon took on the sense that’s being used in the title of the Fierstein-Lauper musical: “Of a thing (esp. clothing): sexually provocative in an unconventional way (e.g. kinky boots).”

Here’s an OED example from the 1963 issue of The Annual Register, a British reference that summarizes each year’s events:

“It was the year … that women adopted the fashionable long ‘kinky’ boot.”

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