pinchbeck

As much as I have reason to like names ending in beck – as my own does – I find this one a bit less than likeable. It’s the pinch, certainly, which induces a distinct physical recollection of discomfort. English got the word pinch from French pincer, and it has taken the tightness of inch (a small space, and we can see how it tightens cinch too) and blended it with the sharpness of pin. Its tone is not helped by such collocations as penny pincher and in a pinch. (Nor is it helped by nurses who say, just before sticking a needle in you, “You’ll feel just a little pinch.”)

The pinch in pinchbeck does not actually come originally from our word pinch, though (not that that matters much for the user who can still see it sitting there); Pinchbeck is the name of a place in Lincolnshire, England – a marshy area that has pumps keeping it suitably drained, and canals cutting up the countryside. Its name comes from Old English for either “minnow stream” or “finch ridge”; it was named a millennium ago, and has been inhabited ever since, so no one’s completely sure anymore, and in form it could have come from either.

But it matters less where pinchbeck comes from than who came from Pinchbeck: a progenitor of Christopher Pinchbeck, a 17th- and 18th-century London clockmaker. He was a very clever sort; he made a musical clock for Louis XIV and an organ for the Great Mogul. He also came up with an alloy of copper and zinc that looked rather nice and somewhat like gold, and that alloy has since borne his name. He used it to make affordable ornaments and jewelry for travelling (highway robbery was common in the literal sense in those days; now it’s what you pay jewellers). But some other jewellers got into the practice of passing it off as actual gold, and so Pinchbeck’s good name became tarnished by way of the devaluation of his eponym – pinchbeck has come to mean something cheap, tawdry, or counterfeit, and in fact by scarcely half a century after Christopher Pinchbeck’s death his name was being extended metaphorically to devalue all manner of things and properties, concrete and abstract.

Perhaps he should have seen it coming. Already by 1600, 70 years before his birth, pinchback was used to refer to a miser, and the best part of a century before that, pynchbeke – which would in modern respelling be pinchbeck – was being used to mean “miserly”. Were the users psychic? Had the future been adumbrated to them through some cosmic mystery? No, the word came about through ordinary English compounding – pinch, the actual word, and then beck from back or beak, it’s not certain. But essentially the same miserly meaning was also conveyed by other pinch compounds: pinch-belly and even pinchfart. (Pinch your nose!) So he was in a bit of a pinch from the beginning, the beck notwithstanding.

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