Aina recently described something she was dealing with at work as “a real humdinger.”
You know what a humdinger is, don’t you?
Can you define or describe it?
I thought I’d look at some instances of early usage of the word in Google Books – and by early I mean the first couple of decades of the 20th century; Wiktionary says the word is “first attested in a newspaper article in the Daily Enterprise of June 4, 1883, at Livingston, Montana” but Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s earliest citation is from 1898 (from Yakima, Washington) and the Oxford English Dictionary has nothing before 1905. Anyway, when a cherry-bomb of a word like humdinger is still fresh, people like to define it when they use it, and here are some hits (forgive the [sic] insertions but I really want you to understand they are not typos):
Vicegerent [sic] M. D. Jameson pulled off at Portland, Oregon, on the evening of December 9 a concatenation that has been termed a “humdinger.” We of the South do not know exactly what a “humdinger” is, but we do know that when the Hoo-Hoo boys of Oregon get together for a Hoo-Hoo meeting and call it a “humdinger” that there was joy and fun there for everyone.
—The Bulletin (of the Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo), volumes 16–17, 1909
It was our second annual industrial exposition, and it was a corker—a humdinger, to put it mildly and intelligently. It jammed the big Curling Club building for a week, and the total attendance was over 100,000, which tells for itself something of what it was like.
—The Rotarian, November 1913
In the words of one subscriber the meeting was “a humdinger.” First of all let us analyze who or what is “a humdinger.”
In the unwritten dictionary of slang the word is used to most forcibly describe a gathering at which a very high degree of enthusiasm over a successful achievement, prevails.
—American Fertilizer, volume 40, 1914
spizzerinctum … was defined as that quality which Wid Card [sic] possessed which made him the youngest man among the assembled people. And when Wid Card got up he said, “anything that is filled with spizzerinctum is a humdinger.” He said, “I am a humdinger.”
—Proceedings of the New York Farmers, 1919
“Papa, what is a humdinger?”
“A humdinger, my son, is a man that can make a deaf and dumb girl say, ‘Oh, daddy!’”
—The Gargoyle, volume 18, 1920
In loud accents we want to inform this old world of ours (and a few of the larger planets) that our house-party last commencement was a “humdinger” (for definition of “humdinger” see Whiz Bang).
—The Scroll of Phi Delta Theta, volume 46, 1921
The dictionaries of the future will contain the word “humdinger.” It is a good word and an expressive one.
A humdinger is one who does things. Blessed be the humdinger. Let us have more of him.
—The Gateway, volume 36, number 2, 1921
So what we can gather from those is that a humdinger is something on the order of a very impressive party – either party as in ‘social occasion’ or party as in ‘person’.
But that’s not what Aina was talking about, and if you’ve used the word humdinger (which, let’s be honest, is really a Jason Sudeikis kind of word, isn’t it), you may have had something else in mind too: a corker in some other sense, not always positive. Quite a thing. Not something to be taken lightly. An eyebrow-raiser. A sockdolager. Something remarkable, outstanding, unusual, exceptional…
All sources agree that the word is American (no surprise there), and we may note that the earliest citations all seem to be from the Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Montana. Some other ten-dollar words from the same era of Americana have come from the South and from New England or New York, but this one has those Northwest bona fides.
But what does it come from? We’re not completely sure – the OED professes to have no idea – but Wiktionary suggests it’s from hummer (‘something that moves fast’) and dinger (‘something outstanding’). Merriam-Webster also thinks it’s probably an alteration of hummer. Which, we imagine, might come from the humming sound machinery makes, or something like that. And to the “whizz” of the humming we add the “bang” of the dinging, to make a real whizzbang humdinger.
I have thoughts about that dinger, too – not to say that this has any connection, but I recall that in the southern Alberta of my youth (and probably many other parts of Canada and perhaps the US), if you wanted to express how unimpressed you were with something, you could say “Whoopee ding” – which was shortened from “whoopee ding-dong,” as in cheer and ring a bell. There is a certain something in that ding – a bit like the nine in cloud nine, dressed to the nines, the whole nine yards, and so on. This is all very impressionistic, of course, but it does have a familiar ring.
Well. Zowie. There you have it. This is a classic old white dad word, ya know? Or maybe old white granddad word now. But nothing’s stopping the youth from using it… It’s a mighty impressive bit of lexis, if you ask me.