Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 10, 2020

Hand Me Those Pinking Shears. Those WHAT?

In a long ago time, my mother would get upset when I used her pinking shears for a non-sewing purpose.

“But, Mom, I have this assignment and I need to construct a model of the national capitol building and I can’t find any regular scissors.”

“Ask your brothers or your sister where they are. I always put the scissors in the drawer where they belong. Don’t use my pinking shears. And stop cutting up cereal boxes that still have cereal in them.”

Pinking?

For some reason, the name of this tool popped into my mind this week. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember (if I ever knew) why those particular scissors were named “pinking,” and just why one needed such an odd implement for sewing.

First things first. If you’re not familiar with them, below is a pair of pinking shears (left) and a regular scissors. Yes — despite that terminal “s” — a scissors or a shears is singular if there’s one object, as far back as we have the word. Like “deer” and other odd words, native speakers know how many of them there are by the article or modifiers: a deer, some scissors, etc.

Pinking shears J Nixon 0935

What Do Pinking Shears Do?

Those triangular serrations on the shears solve a problem common to tailors. If you cut the edge of a piece of woven cloth in a straight line and don’t hem it, the weave unravels.

By making triangular cuts of a zig-zag pattern, pinking shears interrupt the fabric’s tendency to unravel. Typically, pinking shears are heavier than ordinary scissors, in order to cut through thick fabric.

Very Well. Why “Pinking?”

Now the fun begins.

Without belaboring the point, there was a common Middle English word, variously spelled pingen, pinken meaning “to prick” or “to push.” That word made its way into early modern English as “to pink:” to stab or prick, although it’s now mostly obsolete. Today, if you tell someone you’re going to pink them, they might not take you seriously.

The Middle English came from an Old English word (also variously spelled), pyngan, also meaning “to prick” or “to stab.” Without that –an ending, it’s simply the word “pyng” or “pink.”

We’ve had the word in English since at least 895, when King Alfred used it in his translation of Pope Gregory I’s Pastoral Care** from Latin into Old English.

The history of those words go back through Latin pungere (same meaning) and before that to Indo European, at the dawn of language, to a word, *peuk, that means precisely the same thing as that now obsolete sense of “to pink.” From it, we also have innumerable related words including point, punctual, and puncture.

“Pinking” then is stabbing or pricking, in a slightly different sense than merely cutting.

What About “Shears?”

I’m glad you asked. Yes, let’s be thorough.

Again, we’re going back through the language, this time without the Romans. We’ve been using more or less the same word, “shears,” pronounced the same way — although spelled differently — for at least so long as the English language has been recorded.

Middle English had shere, from Old English, where it was written down as scear or sceare. The Old English scribes used an sc to indicate the sh sound: exactly the same word. It first appears in written form in 725 in a Latin glossary (dictionary) as the Old English translation of Latin forfex: “scissors.” Alfred also used the word in Pastoral Care in 895. The same word, intact, across 13 centuries.

At about the same time, ancient versions of German, Teutonic, Dutch and possibly Norwegian had a similar word, all stemming from a prehistoric Indo European word, *sker: “to cut.”

A Step into the Poetic Imagination

As any speaker of another language trying to learn English will tell you, it’s an infuriating language.

Take “shears” or the verb, “shear.” Those words alone have several meanings. Then there’s the homophone, “sheer,” with several entirely unrelated meanings.

Another ancient meaning for that Old English scear is “ploughshare.” That makes sense. A ploughshare shears through sod and soil.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote some of the most remarkable of all English poetry. His poem, “The Windhover” — at least the opening lines — are familiar and oft quoted.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air ….

The final stanza begins with this all-but-impenetrable phrase:

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion shine.

A sillion is the the line of overturned earth a plough cuts, lifts, turns and leaves behind. Thus, what Hopkins is saying is that even simple (sheer) effort (plod) can result in the shine of light on the curve of earth carved up by the smooth plough blade.

But he does something incredibly clever: He uses the word “sheer,” — homophone for shear — OE scear — which we now know means “ploughshare.”

It’s a pun on modern and ancient English, hidden away by a master.

Do you use pinking shears? Leave a comment.

**For sticklers, the Latin title of Gregory’s work was Liber Regulae Pastoralis (The Book of the Pastoral Rule), but Alfred named it Pastoral Care, and thus it is in English. Don’t contradict the King.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Photo courtesy J. Nixon, copyright 2020, used by kind consent. Etymology sources: A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J.R Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971; Cassell’s New Latin Dictionary, Cassell & Co. Ltd./Funk & Wagnall’s, 1968.


Responses

  1. I have a pair of pinking shears that belonged to my mother. They still work well but I’m not really into sewing so they’ve had little use except for small arts and crafts projects such as cutting up Christmas cards and making them into gift tags using pinking shears to make a decorative edge. I’ve also got a single hole punch which we use for putting the cord through. Do these still exist now or is it just the standard double ones? Haven’t seen them around for awhile but then again I haven’t looked! Enjoy the Easter break as best you can and take care, Marion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marion, thanks for the note. That use for your pinking shears is PRECISELY the sort of thing Mom did NOT care for. But makes perfect sense to me!
      So far as hole punches go, I’m not enough of a crafter to answer your question. We go into the big craft supplies chain when we need photo props or holiday decorations. I marvel at the array of STUFF there is. I assume that if one can imagine a potential craft tool, someone makes it. I don’t think I have one of those hand-held hole punches any more, but I certainly remember them.
      I didn’t go into it in an already-too-long post, but the pinking shear design was patented by a Louise Austin in 1893. Given the name she assigned to her creation, I almost have to conclude she was a Brit. Not certain how well “pinking” fared as the language immigrated to North America.
      Be well, and keep writing. Happy to have your backlog of travel tales continue appearing.
      Brad

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Out on the board the old shearer stands,
    Grasping his shears in his thin bony hands
    Fixed is his gaze on a bare-bellied yoe,
    Glory if he gets her, won’t he make the ringer go

    Click go the shears boys, click, click, click,
    Wide is his blow and his hands move quick,
    The ringer looks around and is beaten by a blow,
    And curses the old snagger with the bare-bellied yoe”

    *****

    “yoe” = ewe (female sheep). A “bare-bellied” sheep is much quicker to shear the wool from, though less productive for the grazier.

    “ringer” = the lead shearer in a shed, the one who can shear the greatest number of sheep each day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now, that’s interesting in its own right, but also because as we discussed “shear,” The Counselor brought up the subject of sheep shearing. Obviously not unique to Australia, but somehow, your countrymen have claimed that identity, worldwide. Appreciate your weighing in! An interesting language you have there. Quite similar to English.

      Like

    • And thanks for the gloss on the difficult vocabulary words. As James Joyce said, “Wipe your glosses with what you know.”

      Like

  3. No! And I never knew what they were, either. Until now.

    When I was a little kid visiting my maternal grandmom, she would say, when she saw someone whose hair she thought was too long, “I’m gonna get my pinkin’ shears.” I had no idea what they were, and she didn’t show me. But I was pretty sure I wanted to steer clear of ’em.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve seen haircuts like that! An excellent story. Thanks.

      Like

  4. As soon as I read ‘pinking shears,’ I heard my mother saying, “Your bangs look like you cut them with pinking shears.” Both of us used them for sewing, but I don’t recall actually cutting my hair with them. It’s interesting that some of the online photo processing programs have frames available that appear to have been made with pinking shears. For example…

    I wondered about ‘pink’ as a color name, and discovered a possible connection there, too. In the 1700s, ‘pink’ was used to designate the flower called Dianthus, which happens to have a frilly edge that looks as though it could have been created with pinking shears. Eventually, the flower-called-a-pink gave its name to the color, and then to other flowers, such as grass pinks, which are pink orchids known for their sheer beauty, and rarely sheared off.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, thank you. I came across that thread regarding Dianthus, too. Wikipedia, at least, gives that serious consideration in the possible etymology, but both OED and American Heritage disregard it. Once one gets back to the edge of actual dictionaries being in existence, it’s interesting how evanescent our grasp on the language becomes. The language is being spoken and shaped by millions of people, minute by minute, and point to THAT or THAT as a definitive point of origin is tough, which is why there’ll always be doctoral dissertation material for aspiring linguists.
      If you look through the comments on this post, you’ll see Little Miss Traveler in Yorkshire commenting that she uses her pinking shears for precisely that crafting purpose.
      My highly accomplished seamstress Sister-in-Law who contributed the pinking shears photo later sent me a photo of a rotary tool she says she uses more often than the shears themselves. I’m going to add it to the post.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The tracing wheel?

        Like

      • It resembles a tracing wheel, but it cuts cloth with a serrated edge rather than simply marking it with pinpricks. I’ll send you the photo.

        Like

  5. […] long ago, Brad Nixon provided a fascinating etymological exploration into the name of a tool I’ve known for years: pinking shears. Useful for seamstresses and […]

    Liked by 1 person


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