Mind your language

‘Pinch’ has long packed a punch

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

9 July 2022

9:00 AM

Before pinch as a verb appears in any written sources, it already formed part of surnames. Hugo Pinch was walking, breathing and possibly pinching in 1190, and in 1220 in Oxfordshire Ralph Pinchehaste was repenting at leisure.

When William Golding wrote the painful Pincher Martin, he knew that any sailor called Martin was nicknamed Pincher. A likely eponym is Admiral Sir William Martin, 4th baronet (1801-95), who headed a drive for discipline. In his biographer’s judgment, ‘his insistence on obedience was not always agreeable to captains and commanders, but if not loved, he was feared, and the work was done’. It seems to me that pinching was highly Victorian. Dickens, in his violent toy-theatre imagination, gives the fantastic dwarf Quilp an astonishing line, delivered to the office boy who defies him: ‘I’ll beat you with an iron rod, I’ll scratch you with a rusty nail, I’ll pinch your eyes, if you talk to me – I will.’ Yet Dickens insists that ‘between this boy and the dwarf there existed a strange kind of mutual liking’. But the arms of poor Mrs Quilp ‘were seldom free from impressions of his fingers in black and blue colours’.

Dickens went on to give a central character in Martin Chuzzlewit the name Tom Pinch. One of Mr Pecksniff’s daughters exclaims: ‘ “But what can anyone expect from Mr Pinch!” cried Charity, with as strong and scornful an emphasis on the name as if it would have given her unspeakable pleasure to express it, in an acted charade, on the calf of that gentleman’s leg.’

Charles Kingsley, whose weird Water Babies also had a protagonist called Tom, in considering child-care, asked about a good fairy in the tale: ‘Did she fly at Tom, catch him by the scruff of the neck, hold him, howk him, hump him, hurry him, hit him, poke him, pull him, pinch him, pound him, put him in the corner, shake him, slap him?’ She did not.

The origin of pinch is obscure, beyond the Old French from which it was borrowed. It is not related to the Spanish pincho, a bit of tapas on a stick. Pincho comes from Latin punctum, like our puncture. Pricking and pinching are two different things.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments