My friend Stan Carey has been so good as to send me a copy of Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang, by Bernard Share. Naturally, I want to share some of its bounty with you. This evening I flipped it open and found a winner right away – in fact, two winners for the price of one.
The headword is flitters. It means ‘fragments, pieces, tatters’. And it sounds like it should, doesn’t it? It has the same fluttering, frittering sound as tatters and the same tatter sound as flutter and fritter; it start with the flipping fillip of “fl” that gives you floppy bits and flakes and other flat things that flit. It’s well enough established that it’s also in the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us that it’s an altered form of fitters, which in this case is not ‘things that fit’ (though many small bits together will fit better than one big block, most of the time). It does not share an apparent origin with fritter (which is related to fracture) or flutter (which is a sibling of float and fleet), but it’s safe to say there’s some cross-influence in usage. We like to pay attention to sound in our expressive words; we have several options to express a concept of broken bits – smithereens is another great Irish one – and we filter as much by sound association as anything.
But if “torn in flitters” or “broken in flitters” doesn’t quite suit because the pieces are even smaller than all that, well, we break the sense in two and make another word for the tinier bits: flitterjigs. This word – specifically from Ulster, the book informs me – means ‘small broken pieces’. Ironically, you don’t break a bit off the word to express smaller size or greater fracturing; you make it longer. Extended words can go farther and carry more energy, expressing a process of breakage carried farther, and the added secondary stress with punchy “jig” really puts the point on it. It has the same rhythm as balderdash and poppycock and jitterbug. And besides, what’s smaller than a cigar? A cigarette! We have a grand old history of signifying smaller things by making the words longer; we usually use suffixes like –ine and –ette, but we can always toss in a jig, as in thingumajig, just for extra vigour.