Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dingbat

Shirley from Spider Lake asked about the word dingbat. She came across it in an article on printing.

A dingbat is a typographical ornament used to decorate a text or to fill in excess white space on a page. We’re all familiar with the pointing finger or the arrow used to highlight certain areas of a text. A dingbat can be an individual symbol, or it might be a scroll or a band. Dingbats may imitate flowers, animals, and other stylized objects, or they may be strictly geometrical and non-representational. Embellishment is the point.

Dingbat is also the name of a computer font originally designed for Apple computers, but now available for PCs. Dingbat fonts can be very imaginative, crafted for a particular theme or purpose.

The ding- segment probably came from a Norse verb meaning to thump with a hammer, and -bat may have come from a Gaelic word meaning a cudgel. The combination on one's noggin would certainly result in impaired thinking.

What I find fascinating, however, is all the other wildly unconnected meanings that dingbat has had over the years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
  • Dingbat was the name for clumps of dung clinging to the butt of sheep or cattle.
  • Dingbat was a slap on the buttocks.
  • Dingbat was a flying missile.
  • Dingbat was an argument involving harsh words and shoving.
  • Dingbat was a biscuit or a muffin.
  • Dingbat was the affection shown by a mother as she hugged and kissed her little ones.
  • Dingbat was the term substituted for a forgotten word, almost like doohickey or dingus.
  • Dingbat can be an insult, a reference to a foolish or ditsy person. Archie Bunker called his wife Edith a dingbat on numerous occasions. On the other hand, it was once an affectionate and admiring term, especially when used by a young man referring to a cute girl.
  • Dingbat was some kind of alcoholic drink.
  • Dingbat was the name for a tramp.
  • Dingbat was the name for money, especially for the fractional currency once in vogue.

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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