How the word Jinx came to mean bad luck or a person who causes bad luck is a twisted tale. Here’s my unofficial and very subjective theory based on research, deep thought, and at least one glass of Scotch.
Way back in the sixteenth century, a bunch of Scotsmen sat around the fire with nothing to do so they invented yet another drinking game. They named it High Pranks—how this translates to Scots Gaelic I have no idea and since they were all drunk and since Scots Gaelic is an adventure all of its own, that bit of history is lost. Anyway, the game involved a dare. You had to perform some crazy feat or suffer the consequences—no drink for the round. This is how we got haggis, caber tossing, and golf among other things. It was a very popular game. Unfortunately, many accidents occurred as the evening progressed and, eventually, the phrase Pranks came to mean bad luck—maybe even bad luck brought on by mischievous wandering spirits.
Meanwhile, in another part of Scotland, people who
spoke languages other than Gaelic called this kind of bad luck a jinx. In this line of development, jinx may have come from the Latin word inyx which is the name of a peculiar bird who can turn his head around nearly 180 degrees while hissing like a snake. The feathers of this bird were common ingredients in magic spells and so the name of the bird came to mean hexed.
Creative speakers combined the meanings and jinx came to mean bad luck brought on by supernatural means. Maybe it happened during one of those drinking games. The Scots boys were showing off for a visitor from a far land. Somebody fell in the peat bog while trying to heave a sheep across the loch or something similar. After they fished him out and dried his kilt, he explained that his bad luck must have been the result of offending a spirit since it could not have been caused for want of skill. The visitor said, “Where I come from, we call that a jinx” and the Scottish boys thought that was funny too. Many otherwise unamusing things seem hilarious when you’re sitting beside a loch drinking whisky.
Ever after, when someone fell in a bog or accidentally set himself on fire, they would laugh and say, “Yer jinxed, laddie.” If it happened too often to the same person or when a particular person was present, they began to wonder if that person wasn’t the cause. They would cock their ginger eyebrows at him and discourage his attendance at other loch-side festivities.
Undoubtedly, the word was used amongst the populace long before it made its way into literature. In 1868, a popular American bar song titled “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines” immortalized the captain as perpetually having horrible luck. The verses were varied, probably bawdy, and legion, all describing the increasing ill fortune suffered by the captain brought on by a curse. Jinx or Jinks was used in various bits of literature thereafter from whence it made its way into baseball slang and thus onward to where it is today.
That’s my theory, unsupported and totally pulled out of—well, not totally. There was a Scottish drinking game associated with the word and the inyx bird was also mentioned as a source. And the references to song and story are real.
But this post has gone on for too long. Let me know what you think of my theory and stop by SorchiaDuBois.com to see if Just Like Gravity is available yet. At this writing, I’m waiting for the publisher to cure some technological troubles, but the book is with her and ready to be launched.