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Q From Frank Palmeri in the USA: I cannot find a definition for the word crimony anywhere. I’ve encountered it twice: once in a Far Side cartoon and another on the Garrison Keillor radio program Prairie Home Companion. Both times it seems to be uttered in exclamation, similar to Holy Cow!.

A It’s certainly a mild exclamation or cry of astonishment or annoyance, now much weaker in force than when it was first used, back in the seventeenth century, when it was usually spelled crimine or criminy. Most dictionaries that include it spell it criminy, though many variant forms exist, such as criminey, crimany, criminee and crimeny. These variations show that the word has usually been transmitted orally rather than in writing.

The usual explanation is that it is a form of Christ, much like another somewhat dated mild expletive, crikey, which came along later; but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that it might just be a variant form of crime.

There is also an elaborated version, crimanetly, known regionally in the US, which also turns up in numerous variations, such as criminetlies, criminetly and crimanightie. The Dictionary of American Regional English has a map showing where its researchers have found these expanded versions — mainly in the northern states of the central and western US, together with California. The entry also lists some compounds, such as Jesus crimanently. This seems to be a relatively modern development, since written examples are known only from the second half of the twentieth century.

Both the short and the long form feel old-fashioned and rural. However, it’s easy to find examples of both in discussion forums online, though it’s hard to say to what extent these are being used as humorous archaisms.

There’s a nice example of criminy in a letter written by Lord Byron in 1816, which shows yet another spelling: “Crimini, jimini! Did you ever hear such a nimminy pimminy story as Leigh Hunt’s Rimini?” This suggests that criminy might be related to Jiminy (as in Jiminy Cricket), which appeared at about the same time. This was possibly a modified form of Gemini, but was equally likely to be based on the Latin Jesu domine.

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Page created 18 Dec 1999; Last updated 29 Dec 2007