Q From Tara Goddard: I don’t know if I have the correct spelling, but do you know the origin of the term ‘shin-dig’, which I have always heard used to refer to a party or event?
A This is going to be one of those answers with more conjecture in it than readers would like. Many researchers have theories about the origin of this interesting little word, but few can supply firm facts. With a bit of guesswork, though, we can get somewhere near the source.
The usual spelling today is without the hyphen, shindig, and means a noisy or merry dance or party, often one that is celebrating something (to define it, the OED uses the informal British English phrase knees-up for a similar sort of party, taken from the music-hall song Knees Up, Mother Brown). Shindig appears for the first time in American writing of the 1870s and the oldest example I can lay my mouse on is in the Idaho Statesman of 30 October 1871.
Shindig is a modification of the older shindy, which could equally be a noisy party or gathering, but in its first examples instead referred to a commotion, ruckus or brawl, as in to kick up a shindy. In that form it dates from the 1820s; an example from later in the century is in Jerome K Jerome’s Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, published in 1886: “I always do sit with my hands in my pockets except when I am in the company of my sisters, my cousins, or my aunts; and they kick up such a shindy — I should say expostulate so eloquently upon the subject — that I have to give in and take them out — my hands I mean.” This idea was often taken over into shindig, as you can tell from Stephen Crane’s Active Service of 1899: “You have noted that there are signs of a few bruises and scratches? ... Well, they are from the fight. It seems the people took us for Germans, and there was an awful palaver, which ended in a proper and handsome shindig.”
You can see how the idea of a ruckus could have become modified into that of a noisy party. It’s less obvious how shindy turned into shindig. An entry in Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms gives the clue, because it says that shin-dig was used literally in the Southern states to mean a kick to the shins. You can see how popular etymology could have added that to the sense of a brawl and created shindig from shindy.
That leaves us only to explain the origin of shindy. Here we get on to shaky ground. It is possible that it’s from the Scots game of shinty or shinney, a bit like hockey and likewise played with a bent stick, a cousin of Irish hurling that some say is also the origin of ice hockey. If that’s so, shindy may be from the Gaelic sinteag, a bound or leap, or possibly from one of the rude cries uttered in the game, such as shin ye, shin you, shin t’ye. By all accounts it was a rough game, often with 100 or more men on each side and no holds barred in the quest for supremacy. The Penny Magazine of 31 January 1835 described it with muted horror: “Large parties assemble during Christmas holidays, one parish sometimes making a match against another. In the struggles between the contending players many hard blows are given, and more frequently a shin is broken, or by rarer chance some more serious accident may occur.”
It’s not hard to imagine the name being borrowed in North America for a commotion.