Simanaitis Says

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FOR A WHILE there, I thought I had completed my Etymology for Our Times series. (Google “SimanaitisSays Etymology” for a sampling.) However, on July 4, the bone-spur-challenged president’s reality TV show reminded me of two more terms: tinhorn and tin-pot.

To me, its high point of trumpery was celebrating how the Continental Army “took over the airports” from the British during the Revolutionary War. Also, he misplaced Fort McHenry’s “rockets red glare” by some three decades: Our National Anthem arose from that incident during the War of 1812, not the Revolutionary War.

But no matter. Trump never has been known as an historical stickler.

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I was comforted that this Independence Day, July 4, 2019, didn’t turn into a prequel to 2020 presidential campaigning. And, indeed, there were other celebratory aspects.

National Archive Ceremony. By contrast, July 4’s naturalization ceremony at the National Archive was so much more in keeping with the American spirit.

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The new citizens are immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Iraq, Mexico, Nepal, South Korea and Vietnam.

Vice President Pence presided; the president was elsewhere.

A Musical Fete. Another meaningful celebration took place at SiriusXM “Symphony Hall.” This satellite radio channel devoted much of its July 4 programming to American music: not just Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein, but Scott Joplin, Florence Price, and Jennifer Higdon.

Etymology: Tinhorn. Merriam-Webster says in its “tinhorn” definition, “one (such as a gambler) who pretends to have money, ability, or influence.” It’s a relatively new word, with first known usage in 1885.

M-W also offers an amplification for English Language Learners: “US, informal + disapproving: a person who talks and acts like someone who is strong and powerful but who is really weak, unimportant, etc.”

Etymology: Tin-Pot. Merriam-Webster compares “tin-pot” with another bit of slang: “TWO-BIT sense//tin-pot dictators.” It cites 1838 as a first known usage in this regard.

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M-W’s Learner’s Dictionary says, “always used before a noun informal + disapproving: of little worth or importance: TWO-BIT.”

It’s generally recognized, of course, that a “bit” is 12 1/2 cents. Thus, two bits is a quarter, harkening back to an earlier day’s “shave and a haircut—two bits.”

How times have changed.

The OED’s Opinion. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary cites plenty of adjectival compound uses for tin: “bucket, can, farthing, flagon,…, whistle.” But no mention of tinhorn.

However, the OED spends considerable microprint on actual pots of tin, finally getting around to “Resembling or suggesting a tin pot in quality or sound; hence contemptuously, without solid worth, of inferior quality, shabby, poor, cheap.”

One of the OED’s citation comes from the Daily News, March 6/7, 1897: “… made a sacrifice to some miserable tin-pot politician.”

Image by Patrick Semansky/AP from

Like, for example, parking an Abrams tank next to the Lincoln Memorial, whereas National Parks could have used the money spent on this. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. Bill Rabel
    July 11, 2019

    The blockade was 100% effective. No British planes ever landed here in 1776.

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