Monday, 1 June 2015

Tin Pots Bells and McDonald's

I've been reading a novel called A Lady From The South, which is a peculiar little adventure novel so little known that I had to find it in the Rare Books room of the British Library (the copy I'm reading is NOT TO BE INTRODUCED INTO THE BRITISH EMPIRE). Anyway, it contains this little passage:

"In the ordinary way," pursued Miss Milligan, "a tin-pot President's job doesn't amount to anything, but in Guayacuador it's different. There are the tin mines, for one thing..."

And it made me wonder where the term tin-pot came from. I realised that I had been quite casually referring all my life to tin-pot dictators without ever wondering why a dictator would be in a pot at all, and why that pot would be made of tin.

In fact, tin-pot, in origin, has nothing to do with dictators at all. It's a kind of bell.

If you can afford it, you should have your bell cast in iron at a great big bell foundry, and you'll get a lovely resonant sound. If you can't afford it you can always find an old tin can and add a little clapper with a piece of string. This is a tin-pot bell and seems to have been common practice, especially among Australian shepherds who would attach such things to the necks of their flocks, as in the lovely poem I Don't Go Shearing Now by Walter Alan Woods:

Then with saddle for a breakwind and your oilcloth tucked in well,
You will listen for the tinkling of the little tin-pot bell

You'll find similar references to tin-pot bells in England in the C19th, and the important thing is that such bells are always emblematic of cheapness. They have no beautiful ding dong. Instead the sound is... well... tinny.

(I'm willing to bet, but have been unable to prove, that this is where the adjective tinny comes from. The chronology certainly works, and I can think of no other explanation for associating sound and metal).

Thus tin-pot became a universal adjective to mean cheap and inferior. It was applied to all things from bells to music to billiards, and finally, like all insults, to politicians, particularly those of the dictatorial type.

It struck me that this is roughly the same process as the Mc prefix that derives from McDonald's the ubiquitous beef bunners. First McDonald's, then the McJob, the McMansion and now a whole entry in the OED under the prefix Mc-.

Oddly enough, there were real McJobs in 1985, advertised by McDonalds, before the term became the subject of scorn. The LA Times reported that

... the McDonald's fast-food chain recently began a training program for the handicapped in the San Fernando Valley called McJobs. McDonald's has hired a dozen people after the two 10-week training programs held so far.

That's what you get for being nice.

The Inky Fool's manifesto

P.S. Another rather odd usage from A Lady From The South (1926). Mysogynist here clearly means not a skirt-chaser:

George, like all reasonably impressionable young men, liked to think of himself as something of a misogynist, an aloof, interesting, slightly sinister figure, courteous always to the Sex, but sheathed in cynicism against the shafts of Eros.


  1. Misogynist never means a skirt-chaser but a woman-hater ! Though I grant you the two may often go together but not always...

  2. This article is a great one. The novel that you have mentioned at the beginning of this article, A Lady from the South, was a fantastic one which I have read once. I just not remember what is exact story behind it. Anyway, thank for letting me to remember it. Visit for dissertation help.

  3. Last year I read the Etymologicon and really enjoyed it.
    I'm reading Issac Mozeson’s book "Origin of Speeches"
    Have you come across it. If so, what do you think?

  4. Hi Mark, just found your work and am reading The Elements of Eloquence. I have a question about the book: On page 1 your opening words are "Shakespeare was not a genius." You reiterate that in the third sentence. However on page 11 you say that Shakespeare was the greatest genius who ever lived. Could you clarify if you think Shakespeare a genius or not...I am confused! Thanks for your time.

  5. Yes. My mistake. I think it's been taken out in later printings.

  6. So a few questions--how did your view change so quickly from page 1 to 11? How did it slip by your editor? And--do you think Shakespeare was a genius, or not? Thanks!

  7. Strange how Poe invented the word tintinabulation to represent the lingering sound of bells even though, as you say, the sound of a well cast bell is anything but tinny?

  8. Tintinnabulation is from Latin tintinnabulum "bell," from tintinnare "to ring, jingle" (reduplicated form of tinnire "to ring," from an imitative base) + instrumental suffix -bulum.

  9. I do wish Mark would reply to my comments...

  10. wen u gonna post mor gr8 stuff Mark???...MISSIN U!!
    (Just for information purposes; I do not type nor speak with that sort of 'street-wise' demure...but I am SOOOOOO bored with clicking on the Inky Fool bookmark and seeing the same thing since early June!!!

  11. The word tinny is used a lot in the world of hifi, a low quality sound system might be described as sounding tinny because the sound output has bo bottom end (bass) but has lots of top end (treble) which I think is a tinny sound, or is it? This gives the word and a whole new meaning and perspective.