We are once again among those curious bifurcated words of which our language is so fond — dilly-dally, flim-flam, knick-knack, pitter-patter, riff-raff, see-saw, shilly-shally ... This one has almost completely vanished from the language and few today know it’s a semi-humorous word that refers to elaborate decoration or detail or to something that is curious or peculiar.
The English Dialect Dictionary of 1905 quotes a disparaging comment by the compiler of a Northamptonshire glossary, “This word is often made use of by the lower class in describing anything that is much ornamented, as carved chests, &c.” Robert Burns wrote in a letter in the year 1793 about “That crinkum-crankum tune, ‘Robin Adair’”. Herman Melville has a mariner scratching his head in puzzlement over whales that didn’t look like the ones he was familiar with: “I tell ye, men, them’s crinkum-crankum whales.” This is a more recent example:
Some painstaking penman had found a way of writing the Scripture account of the Passion with such a multitude of eloquent squiggles and crinkum-crankum that he had produced a monument of pious ingenuity, if not a work of art.
The Manticore, by Robertson Davies, 1977.
The word has a confused origin. It’s related to the older crinkle-crankle and cringle-crangle, which are both based on crankle, meaning a bend, twist or curve. In turn this derives from crank, something winding or crooked or a cranny or inaccessible hole or crevice, a sense that had been borrowed from that of a handle.
Crinkum-crankum was also a vulgar slang term, which Francis Grose explained in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1784 as being “a woman’s commodity: the private parts of a modest woman, and the public parts of a prostitute.” A century earlier, it had been noted in a book about the law that at one time a widow would forfeit her lands and possessions if she was caught in “amorous conversation” but she might reclaim them if she appeared at the next manor-court, riding backwards on a black ram with his tail in her hand, and reciting the following words:
Here I am,
Riding on a black ram,
Like a whore as I am;
And for my crinkum-crankum,
Have lost my binkum-bankum;
And for my tail’s game
Am brought to this worldly shame.
Therefore good Mr Steward let me have my lands again.
Nomo-Lexicon: A Law Dictionary, by Thomas Blount, 1670. Binkum-bankum is recorded nowhere else. Might it refer to a bank in the financial sense? The text implies the rhyme was already old in 1670, but it’s just possible, as bank in this sense dates from the early 1600s.
A related term is crinkle-crankle, a serpentine garden wall that was decorative, gave good shelter for growing plants and was cheap to build, because the bends gave it sufficient support that it need only be one brick wide. Another term of similar form to crinkum-crankum is cringle-crangle. Both crankle and crangle are frequentive forms that derive, like crankum, from crank.