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What is the etymology of rinky-dink? The word dinky carries the sense of something trifling,small,shoddy,or insignificant. Maybe rinky just gives it a reduplicative quality. But references give the phrase an unknown etymology.

  • Where did you see this phrase? What did you find when you Googled for rinky dink etymology? Please include what you found, even if it didn't help you answer the question or you found conflicting answers. – JJJ Apr 6 '18 at 16:35
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    Bill S. noted in his question that "references give the phrase an unknown etymology"—a fact he couldn't have known if he hadn't done at least some research into the question of the phrase's origin. As a site participant who enjoys doing fairly extensive research into word and phrase questions like this one, I must say that it didn't matter at all to me that Bill S. didn't specify the particular references he consulted that said "etymology unknown." I think this question should be reopened. – Sven Yargs Apr 6 '18 at 19:42
  • Just for the record, in the 50s there was a children's TV show called Winky-Dink and You. I'm guessing it's title was a play on the term "rinky-dink". – Hot Licks Apr 8 '18 at 21:04
  • In 1916, L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz also published a children's book called Rinkitink in Oz, about the adventures of the whimsical king of a small (and imaginary) country. – Sven Yargs Apr 11 '18 at 2:30
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Reference works on 'rinky-dink'

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers the following unusually concise entry for rinky-dink:

rinky-dink adj {origin unknown} (1913) 1 : SMALL-TIME 2: OLD-FASHIONED

Although it doesn't attach any usage dates to its information, Don Wilmeth, The Language of American Popular Entertainment: A Glossary of Argot, Slang, and Terminology (1981) has this entry for the term:

Rinky-dink or rinkydink: 1. From carnival lingo meaning cheap, gaudy merchandise or junk. ... 2. A cheap place of amusement or a honky-tonk.

For its part, Etymology Online offers this somewhat lengthier discussion of the term:

rinky-dink (adj.) 1913 (from 1912 as a noun), said to be carnival slang and imitative of the sound of banjo music at parades [Barnhart]; compare ricky-tick "old-fashioned jazz" (1938). But early records suggest otherwise unless there are two words. The earliest senses seem to be as a noun, "maltreatment," especially robbery:

So I felt and saw that I was robbed and I went to look after an officer. I found an officer on the corner of Twenty-fifth street and Sixth avenue. I said, "Officer, I have got the rinky-dink." He knew what it meant all right. He said, "Where? Down at that wench house?" I said, "I guess that is right." [testimony dated New York August 9, 1899, published 1900]

And this chorus from the "Yale Literary Magazine," Feb. 1896:

Rinky dinky, rinky dink,

Stand him up for another drink.


Early newspaper instances of 'rinky-dink'

Elephind and Chronicling America searches search turns up eight unique occurrences of rinky-dink (or rinky dink) from May 1897 to August 1900. The earliest instance is from an extemporaneous bit of rhyme included in "Great Gloomy Globs," a long and rather disjointed account of a baseball game between the Norfolk Brooms and the Richmond Bluebirds in the Norfolk [Virginia] Virginian (May 6, 1897):

Wot 'ell! Say! dis is tuff,/ Ter have a lot o' dubs like doze,/ Who can't field a ball widout a muff,/ An can't hit ter win er suit o' cloes,/ Trow us down like dis.

An' say! Dis McNamara [the umpire],/ He ain't so warm. I don't tink!/ He gave de boy's de boom ta-ra-ra,/ De out an' out cold rinky dink./ Dat's what he did.

From a poem about slang, titled "A Fair Purist Speaks," from the [Tionesta, Pennsylvania] Forest Republican (May 12, 1897):

I don't like slang; it makes me tired,/ In fact, it goives me a pain;/ I'd like to see all geezers fired/ Who can't talk English plain;/ They're always talking through their hat,/ And nearly queering one,/ Until I don't know where I'am at,/ And want to get a gun.

There was a duck whose name was Jim,/ He thought he'd made a hit,/ I didn't say a thing to him—/ Say, he was in it—nit!/ "Your talk," I said, "is simply punk,/ You'll win me—I don't think."/ And so, instead of being hunk,/ He got the rinky-dink.

I must say men have got their nerves/ To sling slang as they do;/ You bet I'm on to all their curves,/ And faze them p. d. q./ The frozen face and marble heart/ Are what they get here; see?/ Of course they think I'm pretty tart,/ But slang don't go with me!

The same poem also appears in the Lafayette [Louisiana] Gazette on June 26, 1897, under the title "A Boston Purist Speaks." Presumably, the Pennsylvania newspaper had in mind that the slang in the poem was fairground—that is, carnival—slang, while the Louisiana newspaper seems to have figured that anything that outlandish must just be New England Yankee talk.

A different instance appears in an untitled item in the Carson City [Nevada] Morning Appeal (June 30, 1897}:

This is the way the [Tuscarora, Nevada] Times Review reports a horse race:

A race between a couple of nags led quite a crowd to the top of the Silver Prize ridge last evening. The "yaller hoss" owned by a stranger, proved to be too speedy for the inky hued local steed. And our home talent got twenty dollars worth of the "rinky-dink."

From "Cut to Five Cents: C. & O. Will Reduce the Rate to Hampton," in the [Newport News, Virginia] Daily Press (March 17, 1898):

A month ago the company put on a special train to make a trip to Old Point every hour. This train has been dubbed by some fool men as the "jerkwater," and "rinkadink" by others. Since the train was put on business has increased daily until the average number of passengers hauled is over 200.

From Louis Tracy, The Lost Provinces: How Vansittart Came Back to France, chapter 15, serialized in the [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star (September 10, 1898):

He [Arizona Jim Bates] gave the document to the first officer he met. It happened to be one of the commander-in-chief's aids-de-camp, who spoke English.

"It is well thought of, monsieur," he said, "I will place it on the wire at once."

Bates smiled all over his face. "That's the rinky dink," he cried. When a feller chips in with that sort of song an' dance it takes the blur out of my lens."

From "Passing of the Quarto Herald: Trials and Tribulations of ye Editor and ye Printer: An O'er-true Tale in a Vernacular That Is Intelligible Even to the Uninitiated Lay Reader," in the Bamberg [South Carolina] Herald (August 31, 1899):

On either side wide fields of corn and cotton—no house in sight—the road a new one, but little traveled, and more than ankle deep in loose sand—they [a Printer and the Devil, riding in a horse-drawn wagon] struggled on at a snail's pace—the rumble of the approaching storm grew louder—presently a few big drops of rain fell with a sputtering hiss in the hot sand—still no house in sight—suddenly the Horse stopped—no amount of pushing or shouting would urge her forward.

"Dis time," cried the Devil dejectedly, and he threw down the reins, "we gits der rinky-dink fur shore!"

From J.B. McCormack, "Will Terry McGovern Go Erne the Limit?" the St. Louis [Missouri] Republic (July 8, 1900):

Billy Madden has given Champion Jim Jeffries until Monday of the coming week to sign articles of agreement to fight Gus Ruhlin. William says if James doesn't affix his John Hancock to the above-mentioned document by that time he will give him "the go by," "the rinky-dink," or whatever term of ignorement necessary to perfectly explain his position and take on instead Bob Fitzsimmons or Sharkey, who is clamorous for another chance at him. We shall see whether he will or will not keep this promise.

And from "The News of Belt," in the Neihart [Montana] Herald (August 4, 1900):

Frank Rush has more trouble than you can shake a stick at. Tuesday he started out to make an arrest and now he is sorry that he spoke. He went after a woman but found that he was up against a buzz saw; it was such close resemblance to a real thing. The warrant of arrest accused her of dealing another dame a few blows with a club. When Rush reached the scene of trouble he found that the person of his quest was in the house with the door locked, and was willing only to flirt with the young officer on the rinky dink plan which says, "You may look, but mustn'y touch." It was another case of that old song, never sung at parlor entertainments, "Through the keyhole in the door."


Early Google Books instances of 'rinky-dink'

Google Books finds several other matches for rinky-dink from the period 1895–1900, starting with the one from "No Hero," in The Yale Literary Magazine (February 1896), as cited by Etymology Online in its entry for the term.

Also, from a letter to the editor of The Conductor and Brakeman (January 1897) from J.E. Arahill of Port Jervis, New York:

As there is to be another vacancy in this body [the railroad commission] in the near future, the chances for the appointment of one of the "craft" are thereby increased. There being no dearth of political aspirants, “out with your lines,” but don't be disappointed if all get the “rinky dink.” I have in mind a certain adverse political experience the writer met with in the past that convinced me the evident disposition of the latter day class of politicians is to close their eyes and ears to the appeals of justice and common sense, with the possible exception of when they have an ax to grind. As the elections are settled, for some time to come, this class won't waste much time or thought on the ordinary mortal, therefore, I would say to the uninitiated, stick to your calling and avoid the chances for bitter disappointment.

From Edward Townsend, The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats (1897):

I must tell you about the billiard tournament which I won. Whenever I wasn't making points swift enough the monkey would do some trick which set every one to chasing him; and so, while no one was noticing, I could count up all the buttons I needed to put me ahead. Honest, a lead pipe cinch would be a dead loser by the side of the game I played when every one was watching the monkey.

That is why I love my pets so much—they never let any one give me the rinky-dink. Honest, I beat Kelly himself that night, with the help of that monkey. If the monkey was not doing his share the parrot would yell “Rats!” just as Kelly was making his shot, and that was sure to be a miss.

From Alfred Lewis, Sanburrs, second edition (1898/1900):

"At last d' little laundry goil makes d' brace of her life. She's so bashful an' timid she can't live; but she's dead stuck on seein' her Billy before he sails away, an' it gives her nerve. As I says, she takes me Rag's steer an' skins out for d' Cap'tal.

"An' what do youse t'ink? D' old mut who's Sec'tary won't chin wit' her. Toins her down cold, he does ; gives her d' grand rinky-dink wit'out so much as findin' out what's her racket at all."

...

"Every mug who comes steerage has to spring his plant when he lands, an' if he ain't as strong as $30, dey—d' offishuls—don't do a t'ing but chase him back on d' nex' boat. He's a pauper, see! an' he gets d' razzle dazzle and d' gran' rinky dink. Back he goes where he hails from, like a bundle of old clothes. Paupers is barred at Ellis Island; dey don't go wit' these United States, not on your overshoes!

From testimony given on August 9, 1899 (January 15, 1900), in Report of the Special Committee of the Assembly Appointed to Investigate the Public Offices and Departments of the City of New York, where a witness offers the commission accounts of two robberies, first the version quoted in the Etymology Online entry for rinky-dink and then the following version:

The Witness—I testified that I had this make-believe money on the inside—call it stage money or counterfeit money—and this dollar bill wrapped around it. I received back all of the stage money. Why, it was well known through that precinct and the twentieth precinct as well that if you went around those places you would get robbed. It is a well known fact.Even the officer—I just said, "I had the rinky-dink," and that was enough. He said "Around that wench house." Even he knew it—what was going on. I was also robbed at the house 149 West Twenty-third street—I think it was on Saturday the 8th—robbed by colored women in the same way. I was going through the street and these girls—it was early in the morning, this was; almost 5 o'clock; and a whole lot of them were in the window, and a policeman about a hundred feet away, and they said, "Pish! Pish! Come here, come here." One rushed out. I said, "Well." "Come up here a minute." I cam in and got right inside the door, and she said, "Come in," pushing me in against the wall and putting her arms around me as if she wanted to love me, and got the money. This was a little roll of money but in the shape as the first one. I went in my pocket, and the money was gone; and so I came out and I said to an officer, "Well, I have been robbed."

And from E.W. Townsend, "The Debut of Jack," in Harper's Monthly Magazine (June 1900):

"Say! me pals figured out dat I was croisy, or had got de Salvation Army fever, and I gets de rinky-dink shake from de gang for fair," was the exact way in which Jack [a prize fighter who had retired from that line of work to serve as the head waiter at a restaurant in the Bowery of New York City] explained the disesteem into which he had fallen to the party at the Restaurant Thirion.

This E.W. Townsend is almost certainly the Edward Townsend who authored The Yellow Kid in McFadden's Flats, published three years earlier.

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Note: To these early instances, site participant and ace researcher RaceYouAnytime adds a newspaper account of a boxing match between Gentleman Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons in early 1897. From the Salt Lake [City, Utah] Tribune (March 28, 1897), hidden behind a paywall, but worded essentially as follows:

Jim draws blood from hubby's nose/ Claret's flowing: Fitz is sinking:/ No! a feint, I see him wink!/ He's up again, and smashing Corbett,/ giving him the rinky dink."


Conclusions

To answer the question "What is the etymological origin of rinky-dink?" it might be very helpful to identify where it was first used and what it's earliest meaning was. The first noticeable thing about the instances from 1900 and before is that virtually all of them refer not to "rinky-dink" as an adjective but to "the rinky-dink," as a noun.

Although the term appears to be of U.S. origin, exactly where within the United States it arose is difficult to pinpoint. Among the books and magazines where the word appeared during the period 1895–1900, several suggest New York City as a possible starting place; but the newspaper references to the term include papers in Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia (two), and Washington, D.C.—and none form New York.

Likewise the milieu where it originated is not entirely clear. A couple of early instances suggest that it may have had underworld or law enforcement origins; but others indicate possible sporting origins (baseball, boxing, or horse racing); and yet others seem to point to carnivals, politics, or the factory.

As for what "the rinky-dink" referred to, the sense of the term varies from one instance to another, but it might be viewed in one or another particular setting as being synonymous with "the runaround," "the cold shoulder," "the shaft," "the flimflam," or "the razzle-dazzle." It was, in short, something that people "gave" or "got" but that no one wanted.

Interestingly, an item titled "Strange but True," in [New York] Puck magazine (June 15, 1895) imagines reporting about the projectile-defeating armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles produced a company named "Rinkydink," named after its founder Captain Rinkydink. This instance is half a year earlier than the first instance of "rinky dink" (as a nonsense syllable in a sing-song chant by drunks) cited by Etymology Online.

And finally, I note that a newspaper item in the [Moulamein, New South Wales] Reverina Recorder (February 9, 1887), subsequently reprinted in ensuing months in four other Australian newspapers, published the words to a proto-blues lament of African American origin, in which various onomatopoeic sounds are represented as words similar to "rinkytink." The intro to the story notes that "it was no unusual thing on warm moonlight nights for the decks of these boats [on the James River near Richmond, Virginia] to be occupied by a happy and thoughtless crowd, when the 'pinkatink' of the banjo, the shuffling of many feet, and loud guffaws might be heard in the near neighborhood." Here is the first part of the lament:

(With accompaniment for banjo.)

Oh! oh! Dat rale-rode is a-comin'

(Tank arank adank!)

You gwine to hear dem kyars a-hummin'

(Rank atank arank!)

Wid dar rodes and der tunuels

Dey is bustin' up de cunnels.

(A pinkatink, a punkasink, a ponkatink!)

Oh! oh! I tole you so,

Dus ole cunnel's bound for to go!

(A rinkatink, a rankatink, a ronkatink!)

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Note: Even earlier is an instance of "rink-a-tink" that RaceYouAnytime found, involving the sound of a scythe being sharpened. From Mary Howitt, "The Barley-Mowers Song," in The Atheneum (August 23, 1834):

Barley-mowers, here we stand,/ One, two, three, a steady band;/ True of heart and strong of limb,/ Ready in our harvest trim;/ All a-row, with spirits blithe./ Now we whet the bended scythe,/ Rink-a-tink, rink-a-tink, rink-a-tink-a-tink!

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The early occurrence (1887) of the banjo-plinking instance of rinkatink gives some force to the idea that a sound very similar to rinky-dink was understood by listeners to refer to the sounds that a banjo makes. But it isn't clear to me that onomatopoeic use of "rinkatink"—either in the 1887 banjo setting or in the 1834 scythe-whetting setting—led directly to the slang term rinky-dink with the narrower set of meanings attributed to it from about 1896 forward.

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    @RaceYouAnytime: Both of your links are excellent and relevant additions to the bigger picture. If you want to build your own answer, I won't intrude, but if not, I will add mention of both instances to my answer. I am especially fascinated by the extent to which sparsely populated western states (Montana, Nevada, and now Utah) are represented among the earliest matches. And I very much like the fact that essentially the same spelling is used in different old songs to represent the sound of a banjo plinking away on a riverboat and the sound of a scythe sharpening on a whetstone. – Sven Yargs Apr 5 '18 at 16:22

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