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Jimmy a lock

Q From Steven Shumak in Toronto: I am curious about the origin of the word jimmy, as in to jimmy a lock. Does the expression derive from a nimble-fingered fellow named James, or does it have nothing to do with the Christian name James?

A The British English term for the housebreaker’s implement was usually jemmy, still common here and also in Australia and New Zealand. Authorities are fairly sure that this word — and the verb to jemmy or to jimmy derived from it — did come from a familiar form of James, though precisely why seems likely to remain for ever a mystery. There seems to be a strong tradition of giving tools the names of people. Another thieves’ term for a short iron bar used to force locks or break open doors was bess; yet another was billy. Think of the jack you use to lift the car when you’re replacing a wheel — this seems to be from the familiar form of John. Yet another example is the term derrick for a type of crane, named after a famous early seventeenth-century hangman.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 29 Jul. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 29 July 2000.