jinx

A jinx is a person or thing that carries bad luck. The origin is unknown, but Douglas Wilson has suggested an etymology that could very well be correct.

According to Wilson’s hypothesis, jinx comes from a character named Jinks Hoodoo in the 1887 play Little Puck starring Frank Daniels. The cast list, as printed in the New York Daily Tribune of 18 January 1888, described the character as:

Jinks Hoodoo, esq., a curse to everybody

Hoodoo is a variation of voodoo From Lippencott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, July 1870:

A few years back the rites of the “Hoodoo” were practiced and believed in the city of New Orleans.

And in the sense of a bringer of bad luck from the Boston Daily, 7 January 1883:

There are many persons in the profession who have wide fame as “Jonahs” or “Hoodoos.” I could name have a dozen to you, really capable and intelligent actors, and one an excellent stage manager—a very old man, but alive yet, I guess, who have been so often associated with unfortunate theatrical ventures that in time it has come to be regarded as their fault, or at least due to them, that disaster hovered over everything with which they were connected.

Daniels was one of the leading comic actors of the day and Little Puck was very popular. Within a few years, the name Jinks Hoodoo was being applied to bearers of bad luck. From the Hawaiian Gazette, 19 March 1895:

When they heard of the ship’s escape the winners were glad and the losers declared that Mr. Ficke was a genuine “Jinks Hoodoo.”

And the Nevada State Journal of 4 April 1906:

Harrison is evidently a child of misfortune. He seems to be the only original “Jinks Hoodoo.” Wherever there is a brick house to fall, Harrison is there to furnish a cushion, but not to tumble. Wherever there is a cloudburst, Harrison does the wet-dog act.

Early in the 20th century, jinx, with the x, began to appear as a standalone term. From the Bud Fisher comic A. Mutt (later to become Mutt & Jeff) from 1908:

They scratched Nappa after all the trouble I had doping him. ‘Sno use. There’s a jinx on me. Here’s where I quit.

And later in that same strip:

That hedge [moustache] always was a jinx to me.

And we have this from the 17 June 1910 Fort Wayne Sentenel that uses both jinx and hoodoo:

Of course every one has heard what a baseball jinx is. It is more popularly known to the layman as a hoodoo, but the ball players themselves call it a jinx. Bob Enos avers that Owner Annis appears to be the jinx of the local club and that the players are getting so that they hate to have him meet them on the road.

Around this time, jinx became an established term of art in sports writing.

But this origin in Jinks Hoodoo from Little Puck is far from the only explanation. The traditional explanation, included in the Oxford English Dictionary and most other standard dictionaries, is that jinx is a variant of jynx, a name from the wryneck, a bird used in witchcraft. From George Daniel’s Trinarchodia of 1649:

Where not a Silver Iyng, or Pigeon, fell To Pay the Markman.

And Thomas Urquhart, in his 1693 translation of Rabelais, used the jynx as a term for a charm or spell:

These are the Philtres, Allurements, Jynges, Inveiglements [les philtres, iynges, et attraictz], Baits, and Enticements of Love.

The problem with this standard explanation is that the use of jynx to mean a charm or spell is vanishingly rare and there is more than a two-century gap between Urquhart and the modern appearance of jinx. It just does not seem very plausible.

Other explanations, usually associated with a person or character named Jinks, have been proffered. These characters sometimes bring trouble or vexation along with them, but the supporting evidence for these other explanations is generally weak.

These Jinks have included a minor character in Dickens’s 1836-37 The Pickwick Papers and a Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines, the subject of a popular barroom ballad. But one of the more intriguing suggestions is given by Gerald Cohen and Barry Popik who unearthed a poem from September 1859 that appeared in The Printer, a monthly New York City newspaper focusing on the arts. The poem is a spoof of Poe’s more famous The Raven, with the character of Jinks playing the raven role. In the poem, an intrepid reporter has no story but Jinks, a messenger from the editor, keeps demanding more copy:

Once in August, wet and dreary
Sat this writer weak and weary
Pondering o’er a memorandum book of items used before
[...]
“Sure, that must be Jinks,” we muttered—
“Jinks that’s knocking at our door;
Jinks, the everlasting bore.”
[...]
“Tell the foreman there’s no copy, you ugly little bore.”
Quoth our devil, “send him more.”

This explanation also has the benefit of being about the newspaper business, a subject that early twentieth century sportswriters would have been familiar with. But there is a still a big gap between 1859 and 1908, when the modern term jinx appears. One would expect to find Jinks being used in the sense of bad luck or the bearer of bad tidings in the intervening years, but the citations are not to be found.

So Wilson’s explanation of the origin in the character of Jinks Hoodoo is the one best supported by evidence.

(Source: ADS-L; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

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