October 16, 2017

"The sun went bang, with smithereens of birds bursting in all directions."

Wrote D.H. Lawrence in "Mornings in Mexico" (1927).

Whence this word "smithereens"? It's smithers, with an Irish diminutive ending, but the OED can't figure out where "smithers" came from.

I had never noticed the word "smithers" before, but Charles Dickens used it in "Our Mutual Friend" (1865): "The old lady nearly blowed us into shivers and smithers, many times."

"Smithers" does work as a last name. There's Mr. Smithers on "The Simpsons," and Dickens has a Miss Smithers in "The Pickwick Papers," but why would you throw an Irish diminutive ending on that name and use it to mean small fragments? The OED doesn't make the obvious move of connecting it to "smith" and I don't know enough about smithing to have any idea if small fragments are created (other than that I'm seeing photos of blacksmiths who are not wearing eye protections).

"Smithereens" was the name of a 1982 movie about a young woman from New Jersey getting into the NYC punk rock scene. It was the first film by Susan Seidelman, who went on to make "Desperately Seeking Susan."

Also in the early 80s were The Smithereens, a rock band from New Jersey. What was it about New Jersey and smithereens back then?



I'm thinking (remembering?) that feeling fragmented was arty and cool in that time and place.

According to Wikipedia, "The band's name comes from a Yosemite Sam catchphrase, 'Varmint, I'm a-gonna blow you to smithereens!'"

There's a town in British Columbia called Smithers, named after some railroad guy was named Smithers, and it seems to be the case that townsfolk prefer to be called Smithereens, rather than the less snazzy Smitherite.

33 comments:

Meade said...

“the less snazzy Smitherite.”

Reminds me how I always wince at “Wisconsinites.”
“Wisconsinners” is much more snazzy and jazzy.

mccullough said...

Is it Madisonians or Madisonites?

Earnest Prole said...

Smithers are the flurry of tiny glowing particles produced when a blacksmith does his work. You saw a perfect example in the fire video discussed today.

Meade said...

Jesus loves the little Wisconsinnereens...
...all are precious in His sight...

Ann Althouse said...

"Smithers are the flurry of tiny glowing particles produced when a blacksmith does his work. You saw a perfect example in the fire video discussed today."

I'm not seeing that definition. OED defines "smither" as "A smith or smithier; a hammerman."

richlb said...

I've seen the Smithereens several times over the years. They have a quality musical catalog.

tcrosse said...

According to MentalFloss:
Smithereen entered English sometime in the early 1800s from the Irish Gaelic smidirín (“small fragment”), which itself is just the Gaelic smiodar ("fragment") with a diminutive suffix attached.

Gahrie said...

Reminds me how I always wince at “Wisconsinites.”
“Wisconsinners” is much more snazzy and jazzy.


We just call them cheeseheads.

tcrosse said...

Minneapolitan doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Indianapolitan even worse.

rcocean said...

I'm a big fan of DH Lawrence's travel books. Sea and Sardinia is good too.

Much less impressed with his fiction. Kangaroo is good though.

The Cracker Emcee Activist said...

Loved the Smithereens when I first heard the Beauty and Sadness EP. It had that freshness that blows you away like when I heard Beatles 65 for the first time. In 1979.

tcrosse said...

But enough of these shenanigans....

Fernandinande said...

http://www.etymonline.com/search?q=smithereen
"small fragments," 1810, smiddereens, from Irish smidirin, diminutive of smiodar "fragment," perhaps with diminutive ending as in Colleen.

Earnest Prole said...

I'm not seeing that definition. OED defines "smither" as "A smith or smithier; a hammerman."

Smithers and smithereens are two forms of the same word. It's obscure, regional, and no doubt disputed.

Interesting, btw, that smith and smite are cognates.

Rae said...

The Smithereens had a lot of good tunes in the 80's. In A Lonely Place, with Suzanne Vega, deserves recognition as a classic.

And you totally forgot the sycophantic Mr. Smithers from The Simpsons.

Grant said...

High-altitude New Mexico is exactly the sort of place where the sun goes bang, smithereens or no. Lawrence (re: Taos, I believe) was right about that, if wrong about many other things. I made it through Sons and Lovers and thought it was interesting if not great. But Lady Chatterley was dreadful.

Todd Galle said...

They were also big around Harrisburg back then. I think that that video was shot in the basement of Gullifty's in New Cumberland. My brother-in-law's band used to open for them. All great guys as I remember.

Quaestor said...

Is it Madisonians or Madisonites?

I fear there is a vanishingly small proportion of Madisonians among the Madisonites.

Quaestor said...

Smithers are the flurry of tiny glowing particles produced when a blacksmith does his work.

That's a very attractive theory since it accounts for smithereens quite naturally. I'll blow you to smithereeens = I'll render your body into so many infinitesimal embers. Unfortunately, it can't be true. Smithereens is a word that has been part of English barely two centuries. Blacksmithery as a craft, however, predates English. The words for the basic tools of the trade go back at least to the Iron Age. Engish inherited those words from its Proto-Germanic progenitors. For example, hammer and anvil are so ancient that they go back to the same word, back to a time when the hammer and the anvil were essentially the same thing, namely a rock, the difference being only which one was used to bash on the other. Those tiny glowing particles are sparks, another word whose lineage reaches far back before English was ever spoken.

Quaestor said...

Too man e's in smithereens.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

tcrosse is probably correct, as other sources trace to 1801 smiodar, in Ireland, as well.

However, there is this tendency among amateur etymologists, especially those defending Irish honor, to derive all doubtful words from something in Gaelic.

https://assistantvillageidiot.blogspot.com/2007/05/theres-sach-ur-born-every-minute.html

Earnest Prole said...

Unfortunately, it can't be true. Smithereens is a word that has been part of English barely two centuries. Blacksmithery as a craft, however, predates English.

By your logic the word sheeple can’t possibly be related to the word sheep because the former first appeared in English in the middle of the last century, while the latter is ancient word that long predates English.

The vast majority of newer words are built on older words. Study up and then get back to me.

Quaestor said...

So, you admit your phony word is a neologism, like sheeple?

Quaestor said...

You've made a claim that about smithereens that's contrary to conventional scholarship. Fine, back it up with evidence, such as a literary source that uses that word as a synonym for spark and you've won. Otherwise, I win.

Drago said...

richlb: "I've seen the Smithereens several times over the years. They have a quality musical catalog"

Indeed. Their "Green Thoughts" album was my primary workout cassette (yes, cassette and Sony Walkman) when cruising in the "Nav".

holdfast said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
holdfast said...

"Smithers, release the Robotic Richard Simmons". . . . "His ass is gonna blow!"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtDvs4J0Z0A

Jim S. said...

I first heard of the Smithereens when the Smiths broke up, and I thought some of the latter had formed a new band with a very clever name.

Static Ping said...

Smithereens is one of those words that make the English language so much fun.

The band is surprisingly good.

dreams said...

I live about a block from a Smithersville which is now a part of Elizabethtown,Ky.

chickelit said...

A smidgen of funk gets you there.

Earnest Prole said...

So, you admit your phony word is a neologism, like sheeple?

Did I confuse you with a newer (75-year-old) word? Let me help. By your logic Shakespeare’s word swagger couldn’t possibly be related to the Middle English word swag because the latter is rooted in an Old Norse word that long predates English.

All words are neologisms when they first appear.

Quaestor said...

Did I confuse you with a newer (75-year-old) word? Let me help. By your logic Shakespeare’s word swagger couldn’t possibly be related to the Middle English word swag because the latter is rooted in an Old Norse word that long predates English.

I must assume by Earnest Prole's COMPLETE FAILURE to defend his bogus notions about the word smithereens that Quaestor is once more triumphant.