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I came across this term while proofreading an unpublished poem by an Irish poet. The context is not important so I'll just say that it is clear that it means “toy cars”.

I Googled the term and see that it refers to a brand-name of die-cast toy car made by the British company Meccano starting in 1931, but, as far as I can tell, petering out in the early 1970s.

Is this a term that’s generally recognized, today, on both sides of the Atlantic? If I said “that’s a dinky car” in the US to an 18-year-old, would they understand? Or would the term only be understood by an older person (I’m Canadian and in my 40s, so I'm guessing older than me)? Would it only be understood in the UK/Ireland (/Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.)?

In other words:

1. Is the term recognizable to a younger person? If so, in which countries?
2. Is the term recognizable to a North American? If so, of what ages?

And finally:

3. Is there a term for a toy car (other than toy car) that is widely recognized by English speakers of different ages and from different countries?

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These are often referred to as Dinky toys, since the firm made models of many things besides cars. –  TimLymington Aug 14 '12 at 16:00
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You mean there was a company that actually named itself Dinky? Deliberately? Let's just say, I'm not surprised we're talking about it in the past tense. :) –  Marthaª Aug 14 '12 at 16:29
    
@Marthaª No, Dinky cars were made by Meccano (part of Hornby). Matchbox cars were made by Lesney. Both are now owned by Mattel. –  Andrew Leach Aug 14 '12 at 16:47
    
In most countries, when a brand name becomes the standard term for a category of product, it is said to become generic and it loses its protection as a trademark. In the US, this is the case with elevator, but not with Kleenex. –  bib Aug 14 '12 at 17:28
    
@bib I think Kleenex is going that way, though. I (and many in the area I grew up) learned to use "kleenex" for all types of tissues. Ten years later, "tissue" still sounds odd to me. –  Izkata Aug 14 '12 at 21:58

8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Although dinky is defined as "small; insignificant", as a North American speaker, I would think of a small, full-sized vehicle, like a VW Beetle or a Mini Cooper. A Matchbox car would be recognizable, though collectors might find it too specific if you're referring to die-cast toy cars, in general.

Edit: Some people may take issue with the use of a trademark as a generic term (which I would liken to frisbee), and although the company has its roots in the UK, it may not be well-known there. If you are wanting to avoid the word "toy", then perhaps simply die-cast car would work.

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So you're saying a North American, without context, might understand "dinky car" to mean a small car. I wonder if "Matchbox car" (which I have heard) is understood in Ireland/UK? –  JAM Aug 14 '12 at 15:43
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As a North American from central New Jersey, I most associate the term "Dinky car" with the Princeton Branch train. Next I'd think of a small car. I'd never get to a model car. –  Charles Aug 14 '12 at 15:49
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@Zairja great link +1 –  JAM Aug 14 '12 at 15:52
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Like @Charles & Zairja, I'd think of a small car before a toy car, but I'd like to add, I'd probably think of a Yugo before a Mini Cooper. (Dinky has almost an inherently pejorative ring to it; in the U.S., rinky-dink means "something considered shoddy and inferior.") –  J.R. Aug 14 '12 at 16:24
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But Matchbox is just another brand name the same as Dinky. –  FumbleFingers Aug 14 '12 at 16:41

Dinky (dinkey) goes back to 1788 from Scottish dialectal dink "finely dressed, trim", so obviously the trademark usage came later.

Thus it's not the same as, for example, [Brits] using hoover as a generic word for a vacuum cleaner, even though many people might think of Dinky that way (or indeed, Matchbox or Hot-Wheels, other related proprietary usages).

A more generic term would be [scale-]model car. Note that some serious collectors would object to calling such things "toys". They're also sometimes called diecast models, which invariably implies "dimensionally accurate, small-scale" reproductions.

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It's almost a crapshoot which trademarks get genericized on which side of the pond. :) Matchbox car is definitely as generic as frisbee or kleenex in the US, but Hoover is a brand name and hardly ever a generic. –  Mark Beadles Aug 14 '12 at 17:01
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@Mark Beadles: I didn't know until I just looked it up, but apparently Hoover was originally an American company. But Wikipedia says there the "eponymous" usage for vacuum cleaners in general is primarily British/Irish, which agrees with what you say. –  FumbleFingers Aug 14 '12 at 17:54
    
While commonly used (incorrectly according to the corporate owners), FRISBEE, KLEENEX and HOOVER are all valid trademarks in the US and are not considered generic (which would mean they lost legal protection). No enforcement is taken against individuals in everyday speech, but if there were commercial use of these terms by anyone other than the owners, the lawyers would weigh in. –  bib Aug 14 '12 at 20:15
    
@bib: Hmm. Maybe in your universe, big money tells you what word you can and can't use. In my universe, I decide what words I will use. If I walk into a cafe and and for "a Coke" (capitalised or not, the guy behind the counter can't hear the difference), I don't give a toss whether the cola I drink is made by Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, or Cheaper-But-Just-As-Good-Cola. And where I live, Coca-Cola wouldn't have a hope in hell of prosecuting me for misusing their supposedly copyright word "coke". –  FumbleFingers Aug 15 '12 at 1:14
    
You are right about Coca-Cola not planning to prosecute you, but if they did, it would be for trademark infringement not copyright. And if they did, guys like me would defend you. –  bib Aug 15 '12 at 1:43

As a Canadian (from BC) in my mid-30's, I recall my mom using this term (dinky car) when I was growing up. I didn't even consider that it might not be universal until reading your question just now.

I'd say that I agree that the only other term besides simply "toy car" or "dinky car" that I've heard would be a matchbox car.

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I'm Canadian, from Ontario, and in late 20's, and dinky cars is what I called them when I was a kid. –  Grant Aug 14 '12 at 19:14
    
@Grant, your comment seems to go against what most other North Americans have said about the term "dinky," (myself included). I'm curious -- did you have British (or Irish) parents or grandparents? I only ask because I'm trying to sort out the 'universality' of the term "dinky car." –  JAM Aug 15 '12 at 14:27
    
My ancestry is quite mixed, but at least back to my grandparents they were raised in Canada. And it wasn't just my family - it was a common term with other children as far as I remember. It probably wasn't the most common term (which was likely Hot Wheels), but it was used frequently. –  Grant Aug 15 '12 at 14:30
    
@Grant - very interesting and thanks. –  JAM Aug 15 '12 at 14:31
    
My ancestry is similar to @Grant, including that my grandparents (on my mother's side) were from Ontario. I believe my great-grandparents were immigrants from the UK, but that is long enough ago to pre-date the dinky car as a term. Perhaps the term was in heavier use in Ontario for a time compared to elsewhere? –  Kyle_M Aug 16 '12 at 14:30

In the US, dinky would be recognized to mean

Of small size or consequence; insignificant.

It would not be understood to refer to a toy car by either an 18 year old or a 65 year old.

Matchbox has been offered as an alternative, but that is a trademark for a specific brand of toy car.

Scale model car has also been suggested, and that is used in the US, as well as the shortened version model car. However model car was, up until several years ago, primarily used to refer to plastic models that were sold in pieces to be assembled with glue and often painted by the purchaser.

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What 'e said, folks. Dinky is not a nice thing to say about someone's car, and never in a million years would the words "dinky car" bring to mind a cast-iron toy car. –  Marthaª Aug 14 '12 at 21:40
    
@Marthaª - but there are probably a few owners of Mini Coopers and VW Bugs who just might buy into the term dinky. –  bib Aug 14 '12 at 21:45
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Perhaps we have stumbled upon a difference in connotation between N. Am. and Brit. I am British. If someone called my small car 'dinky', it would be with an enthusiastic voice, and I would be happy to receive the compliment. –  Barry Brown Aug 15 '12 at 6:46

I grew up mostly in the United States, with brief childhood sojourns on U.S. naval bases in the Western Pacific. I bought die-cast cars from about the third grade on, and had never heard of the Dinky brand. Given that background, here are my answers:

  1. Given that Meccano (Dinky) went belly-up in the 1980s, I would suspect that only someone who had been a small boy (or girl) in 1980s, and living in the UK, would have heard of Dinky. Anyone younger than that would have had to have had a relative who was an ardent collector of die-cast cars.
  2. This North American had never heard of Dinky until now, and I graduated from college in the mid-1980s.
  3. Speaking from personal experience with friends and relatives living in Europe, Asia, and Australia, I'd say that Hot Wheels would currently be the most recognizable term for "die-cast toy car" around the world, and probably the closest to being a generic term. (The "Choose Country" pull-down on the Hot Wheels web site lists 22 countries, including 4 English-speaking ones.)

When I bought a (real) MINI Cooper 5 years ago, I mentioned the fact to a nephew who was living in Singapore, who replied, "Oh, yeah -- I have a Hot Wheels of the Cooper S."

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I grew up in the UK (b. 1961). We had Dinky cars. We also had Matchbox cars, which were slightly smaller. Dinky cars later became quite collectable, but for that, they'd need to be pretty much un-played-with. In any case, the name is quite recognisable to me.

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Brits of a certain age know what we're on about. I'd say "dinky" means small/cute and I agree with @Barry Brown above. –  ukayer Aug 28 '12 at 4:01

Old topic, but thought I'd chime in. I'm a late-30's Canadian from the east coast. I have a collection of about 300 toy cars that I received when I was a kid. I call them my Dinky collection even though there isn't a Dinky Toy among them. All Hot Wheels and Matchbox.

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Three new "Dinky" cars in my son's collection as of today... –  JAM Dec 26 '12 at 4:33
    
I actually had a conversation about Dinkys tonight and thought I'd Google it and this page came up. I'm surprised that no one else has mentioned another meaning/use of dinky. ie: a penis. When I was a kid Dinky was just what we called these cars. At the time I just assumed they were called this because they are somewhat penis-sized. –  Jay Dec 26 '12 at 4:53
    
hilarious! Yes I too wondered why the other meaning hadn't come up yet. –  JAM Dec 26 '12 at 16:06

Usual 'sample size of one' disclaimer, but over on this side of the pond (Australia) in my social group (30ish) I suspect we'd understand dinky as an adjective to mean toy-like (shorthand for small, cute, dainty, etc).

Quoting from the Macquarie Encyclopedic Dictionary (1990 ed):

dinky (adj.). dinkier, dinkiest, n. pl. dinkies. Colloq, -adj.

  1. of small size.
  2. neat; dainty; smart.
  3. a small tricycle
  4. dinghy [from a British dialect]

One note I'd add to the Macquarie - it's not something you'd hear in a positive sense in my group - you'd be likely to hear dinky applied in a way that's less complimentary and more belittling to the object/owner. Example being to call someone's car dinky would generally mean you're saying that it's small (and not large, and spacious), and rather dainty (and not muscular or suited to the rigors of real world usage), so in that sense we'd be close to the AmE answer from @BiB.

Speculating, I'd guess that the negativity came about because of the demise of the Dinky. We retained the word and its essential core to denote something as a toy but instead of drawing from a positive comparison to a finely crafted work of art (lacking actual contact with a Dinky) we can only draw on the other idea of calling something a toy when it's not intended to be a toy - that's almost never positive.

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Interesting -- thanks for the Australian perspective. Seems that Brits and Canadians are more familiar with 'Dinky cars' as a term, than Americans and Australians (apply your disclaimer here re small sample size). I myself wasn't familiar with the term despite an English mother, but that might be because my gender didn't tend to get given toy cars when I was growing up! –  JAM Jan 3 '13 at 23:22

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