Word for Wednesday: Smithereens

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This week we’ll be taking a look at one of my all-time favourite words: ‘smithereens’.

But have you ever heard of a smithereen?

Surely, a singular exists? Maybe not, perhaps ‘smithereens’ is a word akin to trousers or scissors, with no apparent singular equivalent but where would we find a pair of smithereens!

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘blown to smithereens’; a phrase that I’ll wager is the only context in which you’ve heard the word used – me too.

For me, the beauty of this word is in its onomatopoeic quality; you can almost hear something shattering into tiny, chiming fragments.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us the origin of ‘smithereens’ is unclear, it suggests Irish origins as it features the Irish diminutive ending - een and there is a plausible link to the modern Irish ‘smidirin’ (small fragments). I’m sure my mother told me that smithereens are the tiny shards of metal that fly from the smithy’s anvil or maybe that’s just a bit of Irish blarney.

Does smithereens relate to the word smidgen; perhaps smidgen is the long lost singular for smithereens.

All that said it seems as though pinning down the origins of the word is a bit of a wild goose chase. Words morph in shape, sound and meaning through local usage. There is often more fun to be found in myths and speculation about word origins than unadorned fact but sometimes the facts are quite unexpected.

Hugh MacDermott

18 Sep 2013
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