Stupid Question ™
March 13, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: What is a “shindig”?
A: You know that feeling you get when you haul out the Christmas tree lights and they’re hopelessly tangled and missing a bunch of bulbs?
That’s how etymologists feel when they look at “shindig.”
Even if you get its history lined up in some kind of order, there’s still too much missing for it all to light up with The Answer.
Funny thing is, we know exactly where “shindig,” in its first known meaning, came from. In Southern US slang of the 1850s, it literally meant a dig, or kick, in the shins.
About 20 years later, it took on its modern meaning of a lively dance or party, especially in the country. This is where the trouble begins.
What does getting kicked in the shins have to do with a dance? Maybe dancing is like digging the legs into the ground. Maybe because of a dance that involved kicking the feet up against the legs. Maybe just a colorful expression suggesting violent dancing.
Maybe. But it’s easier to imagine the violent “shindig” first coming to mean a fight, and then broadening further to mean a lively gathering.
And in fact, “shindig” did come to mean a fight—but only very recently, in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, most etymologists are convinced “shindig” had to be influenced by the similar-sounding word “shindy,” which did mean “a fight.” The phrase “kick up a shindy,” meaning to start a fight, was current at about the same time “shindig” (in the dance meaning) first appeared.
Like most slang words, “shindig” and “shindy” both leave use too few written citations to accurately trace their histories and relationships (if any) to each other.
At least one author suggests that “shindig” is simply a corruption of “shindy.” That ignores the original, literal meaning of “shindig,” but the dance meaning of “shindig” could actually be a freshly coined word, not an evolution from the original.
But if “shindig” came from “shindy,” why didn’t it first mean “a fight”? It may be that shindy—still current British slang—influenced only the recent “fight” meaning of “shindig,” and not its earlier meanings.
To complicate matters, “shindy” began in the 1820s as UK sailor slang for a lively party or dance. Yes, a shindig. But “shindy” was popularlized in US and Canadian slang in the meaning of “a fight.” Why this meaning shift happened, and happened so quickly, as the word entered common slang is unknown.
The origin of “shindy” is itself unknown, and the guesses are also tortuous. It possibly comes from “shinty,” which was another way of saying “shinny.”
Shinny, around the late 1600s, was a Scottish and North American game something like hockey, so called from the players’ practice of shouting out, “Shin ye!” or “Shin you!”
The meaning of this shout is obscure, but could be the obvious: “I’m going to crack you in the shins with this stick!” Or, you might say, a shindig.