Q From Glenda Millgate, Canberra, Australia: Over drinks the other night, a colleague mentioned how one of our number always wins the raffle, calling him tinny. Several at the table had never heard the word before, which surprised me. My mother, a co-worker’s father and another co-worker’s grandmother all used it quite commonly. The theories we came up with were that it may be to do with helmets in war (not getting shot!), collecting money in a tin, something mining related, or possibly to do with roofing tiles. Probably all of these are wrong, but we’re hoping you can help us!
A You’re correct. All of these are wrong.
Tinny was once common in both Australia and New Zealand, though it has fallen somewhat out of use. That’s very probably because other slang senses have superseded it, such as those for a can or tin of beer and for a lightweight aluminium boat.
As it happens, the first example recorded in print is from New Zealand, in the Chronicle of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force of 1918: “Remarks are heard on the ‘tinny’ luck or otherwise of the [poker] players while the ‘stiffs’ bemoan their luck.” A comment in a book by Eric Partridge two decades later asserts that it was First World War soldiers’ slang.
Both the Oxford Australian Dictionary and the Oxford New Zealand Dictionary say the origin is the earlier slang tin for money. This is known from 1836. The Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Said to have been first applied to the small silver coins of the 18th century, which before their recall in 1817 were often worn quite smooth without trace of any device, so as to resemble pieces of tin.” Part of the stimulus for inventing it may have been the even older brass for money, which is known from the sixteenth century.
Various compounds of tin appear in the record earlier than tinny. The Bulletin of Sydney noted in 1898 that a tin back is “a party who’s remarkable for luck”. Much later, tin-arsed appears as a term for a person who is remarkably lucky. This has puzzled some writers, who don’t see the historical link with the money sense of tin, and have suggested it means somebody who is well protected in the fundament by a metal sheet so a kick there doesn’t cause any pain. The variant tin bum is known in New Zealand.