Q From Shona Krishna: I was reading a comic strip, The Wizard Of Id, and came across the word fink. What does this word mean? Could you tell me its origins?
A Brant Parker and Johnny Hart use the word quite a bit in the strip, with the king regularly being called one by the Lone Haranguer. There are three possible meanings. The first one recorded is of an unpleasant or contemptible person (sometimes in the extended form ratfink), but the more common one today is that of someone who informs on people to the authorities. There’s also a third sense, now dated, of a strike breaker. For the king in the strip, it’s the first sense that’s relevant, though neither he nor you would want to be called a fink, whichever meaning was meant.
Where it comes from has been debated a lot down the decades. One school of thought says it’s a modified form of Pink, short for Pinkertons. Pinks was the name given to the strike breakers who were hired by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency during the infamous 1892 strike at Andrew Carnegie’s steelworks at Homestead in Pennsylvania. If this sounds a bit far-fetched to you, I’m not surprised. The supposed shift from pink to fink is very unlikely and it isn’t supported by the early evidence. The story caught on largely because it was asserted as fact in a 1925 article in the American Mercury.
Though the first known example dates from 1894 (in George Ade’s book Chicago Stories) only two years after the strike, Ade used it in the sense of a worthless freeloader. The strike-breaking meaning didn’t appear until 1917, far too late to have come from the strike, and well after the informer one, which is first found in 1902 in another of Ade’s books, People You Know.
The consensus is that it comes from German student slang. Fink here is the German word for finch. In the nineteenth century, students who were not members of a college fraternity were called finks, perhaps because they were considered to be wild birds, uncaged or undomesticated. Later it became modified to refer to somebody poorly regarded, “not one of us”. An alternative German source sometimes suggested lies in one of the insulting slang terms Dreckfink, Schmierfink, or Schmutzfink, all terms for a low, dirty person.