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Chin wag

Q From Lila Nelson, Minneapolis: A friend of partially Irish ancestry, who is a most delightful conversationalist, enjoys a visit, which he refers to as having a chin wag. I had never heard this apt term before. What can you tell me about it?

A On this side of the big pond, it’s regarded as unremarkable, though it feels a touch old-fashioned. Stabbing my electronic pin at a collection of newspaper articles I speared this one from the Racing Post of 16 March 2008: “He seems to understand that yes, we all enjoy watching football and having a good chin-wag about it, but, at the same time, we’ve all seen thousands of matches before so let’s not get too carried away.”

To have a chin wag in current usage is to have a gossip or a wide-ranging conversation on some mutually interesting subject. It goes back a long way. As an example of the byways that searches can take one down, the earliest example I’ve found is from the North Lincoln Sphinx, a regimental journal prepared by and for the officers and men of the second battalion of the North Lincolnshire Regiment of Foot. The issue for 28 February 1861, prepared while the battalion was based in Grahamstown, South Africa, included some jokey revised “rules” of whist, whose first item was “Chinwag is considered rather as an addition to the game, than otherwise, and is allowed.” A footnote said that it was an “American slang term for excessive talking.”

I wonder if the footnoter is right. All the early examples are British, including this one from Punch in 1879: “I’d just like to have a bit of chin-wag with you on the quiet.” The English slang recorder, John Camden Hotten, included it in the second edition of his Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words in 1873, but intriguingly defined it as “officious impertinence”. It was more often used in the sense of those whist rules to mean inconsequential talk or idle chatter or to suggest unkindly that some person couldn’t stop talking. Wagging one’s chin, indeed.

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Page created 21 Jun 2008