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Smithereens

Q From Stephen Offenbacker, Germany: Any thoughts on the origin of smithereens, as in smash to smithereens? I sometimes wonder if it could have anything to do with blacksmiths, since a blacksmith’s hammer is certainly well capable of reducing objects to small pieces.

A It’s an excellent word to describe the action of pummelling something forcibly, with that sm sound at the start that also appears in words such as smack, smite and smash. When an object has become smithereens, it has been thoroughly reduced to little bits. There’s nothing half-hearted about the activity, which most often appears in phrases such as blown to smithereens, split in smithereens and your smashed to smithereens. Another:

The party is in danger of being blasted to smithereens at next year’s General Election.

The Sun, 26 Feb. 2015.

That huge tribe variously called Smith, Smyth, or Smythe, whose family name has been taken from a worker in iron, need not worry that they are being accused of mayhem by proxy. Though there has been some small doubt about the origin of smithereens, and Ivor Brown speculated in Words in Our Time in 1958 that smithers might be from the detritus of blacksmithing, the experts are now sure that there’s no link to blacksmiths.

The -een ending at once makes us think of Ireland and of colleen, poteen, shebeen and other words that derive from the Irish diminutive ending -ín. (A colleen is a young woman, poteen for illicit alcohol is literally a little pot and a shebeen, in which such liquor was sold, takes its name from the Irish word for a small mugful; but note that tureen, canteen, velveteen, sateen and some other words aren’t from Irish, but from French.) Most dictionaries assert that smithereens is indeed Irish, from smidirín, a diminutive of smiodar, a fragment.

Early examples are certainly associated with Ireland. In August 1810, the Dublin Evening Post published a notice that had been posted on a local magistrate’s door in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in 1795. This was the act of Orangemen, Protestant adherents of William of Orange (William III), who invaded Ireland in 1690 and defeated his Catholic predecessor James II at the Battle of the Boyne:

Mr Pounden, — Sir, we gave you notice some time ago to quit this country, for you are making a rebellion here — we tell you now again, that if you do not be of directly, by the gost of William, our deliverer, and by the Orange we wear, we will break your carriage in smithereens, and hoch your cattle, and burn your house — so mind yourself — you will soon hear again from your friend, TRUE BLUE.

Reprinted in the Irish Magazine, or Monthly Asylum for Neglected Biography, Sep. 1810. Hoch is sometimes respelled as hough; both are versions of hock, to disable an animal by cutting its tendons.

This notice was also reproduced in Francis Plowden’s The History of Ireland from its Union With Great Britain in January 1801 to October 1810 and in newspapers in Britain and North America. The publicity must have helped popularise the word. By one of those quirks of recording, the word had appeared earlier in print in the US in an article in the Goshen Weekly News of Indiana in January 1805. Smithereens — always plural, by the way — became widely known in later decades wherever English was spoken and is still common. It’s too good to lose.

One remaining minor puzzle is its resemblance to the Scots and English dialect word smither or smithers meaning fragments, a word of doubtful ancestry, though it’s been suggested it might be from smite, or perhaps associated in some way with smidgen.

An’ once I said to the Missis, “My lass, when I cooms to die,
Smash the bottle to smithers, the Divil’s in ’im,” said I.

The Northern Cobbler, in Ballads and Other Poems, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1880. This dialect poem recounts the cobbler’s struggle against alcoholism.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in an old entry, wondered if smither could have been taken to Ireland by incomers and been extended by the een ending, with the Irish form smidirín coming along later. As smithers was first recorded decades after smithereens, it’s just as likely matters are the other way around, with its being an abbreviation of smithereens. Nobody believes either situation now: the two words were probably of independent formation, though they may well have influenced each other.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Mar. 2015

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 March 2015.