Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Saturday, May 31, 2008


The issue has come up whether "fink" in slang has something to do with German "Fink"--the German word for "finch." The dictionaries on the web I have looked at (quickly) claim that the origin of fink is unknown, but my German dictionary suggests something interesting: It lists under "Fink" not only the primary meaning, the songbird "finch", but also a slang meaning, "tosher". Now, I have never heard of "tosher," but this is what my friend Wiki says: "A tosher is someone who scavenges in the sewers, especially in London during the Victorian period." This is interesting b/c German "Dreckfink" means a dirty person who loves to play in the mud. This suggests to me that English "fink" may actually have something to do with German "Fink". But then again, why hasn't someone found this out yet?


PhillySolver said...

In the 1960's the word fink became very popular as a put down. In my mind I here Jimmy Gagney saying it, but do not know if it really happened. Thanks for the info.

miriam b said...

Good idea, Ulrich.


PhillySolver said...

Follow this link and you will get to a puzzle with NICO as an answer and clued as a member of The Velvet Underground. It has occurred twice before and Jim H's data base will tell you all about it.


I didn't figure out how to post this on your Cologne post.

Ulrich said...

This is what the Word Detective has to say:

The case of "fink" as an epithet, however, is a bit more complicated. "Fink" in the lower-case pejorative sense first appeared during the labor struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly the 1892 strike at the Carnegie Steel Company in Homestead, Pennsylvania. A "fink" in the labor sense was a spy or informer who worked for the bosses, and the traitorous "finks" were detested by the workers even more than the "scabs" who crossed picket lines. "Fink" in this sense of "traitor" was such a powerful slur that it fairly quickly passed into general usage meaning "a contemptible, disloyal person."

One of the more popular theories about the origin of "fink" traces it to a rhyming variation on the name of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, whose agents often infiltrated unions as spies for management and played a central role in the brutal suppression of the Homestead strike. But if that theory strikes you (as it does me) as a bit far-fetched, there is a better one. "Fink" in the "traitor" sense may well come from the German word "fink" meaning, again, "finch," and carrying the connotation of "singing" to the bosses (as does the slang term "canary" for an informer).

Ulrich said...

@phillysolver: Thanks. I had planned to draw people's attention to the importance of Cologne in the xword universe when I'll report back from Cologne next week--you beat me to the punch--no problem!

You can't comment there directly b/c it's not a thread, it's a passive html page on my personal web server--I'll take the line about Nico out.

ArtLvr said...

Your theory is plausible, Ulrich -- I remember the term appearing as rat-fink also, and thought it was a euphemism for rodent excrement or copulation or something! Hard to know at this point, it's so old a term....


mac said...

I'm in! This box didn't show up this morning, but all is fine now. Good luck with the blog, Ulrich.

P.S. Fink is vink in Dutch, but there is no negative connotation to the word, just a pretty little bird.

Wendy Laubach said...

"Ratfink" is the variation I'm most used to, also. For that matter, "rat" has the same connotation alone. The possible derivation from "finch" is interesting.

There's also "snitch," "stool pigeon," or, more positively, "whistle-blower."

Here's a citation to an old-fashioned use of the word "fink" that appears to predate the "informer" sense and connotes a more generalized insulting quality. The fellow keeps trying to explain the meaning of the word; you can imagine the polite, attentive, but totally unenlightened faces of his audience:


miriam b said...

That's great, Wendy. I could hardly keep my eyes from glazing over while reading it.

Interesting that a canary - also an informer - is a finch. Other birds sing, but the finch family seems to have received the bad press.

On the other hand, the Penn Dutch symbol of happiness is the Distelfink (goldfinch).

Ulrich said...

@miriam b: I added to the post a picture of a goldfinch that I took in our garden. It looks quite different from what is called also "Distelfink" in German--are you sure they are the same? The legend that is told to children about the Distefink in Germany is that when the good Lord painted the birds, he ran out of colors before he had painted the Distelfink, so he used the last bits of color from all the brushes he had used, which means the Distelfink is the most colorful "Fink" we have.

miriam b said...


The Penn Dutch distelfink is very colorful too. See the link to the image at this site. I'm impressed with your photo. I never see finches here on Long Island, only the run-of-the-mill seagulls, crows, robins, sparrowa, starlings, doves, cardinals, bluejays, etc. No AUKS or ERNS or EGRETS or EMU, though.


mac said...

Loved the picture of the gold finch - we have many here and feed them all the time. I read they have a short period to have and raise their babies, then have to fatten up to fly back to Central America. We buy the birdfood in very large bags and fill the finch feeder every couple of days. The males are so colorful, the females a little greenish.

I'm happy that it's raining in Fairfield! We have all kinds of newly planted stuff and don't want to have the sprinkler system going all the time.