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The skinny on shimmy and shinny

Sep 13, 2015

Let's do the shimmy today! Did you know that the name of the move you do with your hips comes from women's undergarments? In fact it might be a corruption of chemise, says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan. 

Some think of shimmy as a dance, others as a maneuver to climb up something, but it gets confused with shinny all the time.

"A lot of people do now shimmy up trees, but it was originally shinny up," says Curzan.

The original term shinny came in around the late 19th century and refers to your shins, as in use your shins to climb up a pole on a ship.

But shimmy, as in the dance, became popular around the 1920s, but we don't know exactly why it's called a shimmy.

"We can speculate," Curzan muses, "Maybe because you're shaking so much you're shaking your underwear."

The meaning of shimmy was then transferred to the vibration of the wheels of a car because of the shaking history of the word. 

But as she was pondering the shimmy, Curzan got to wondering if she could take any body part and turn it into a verb the way shin was. 

"So then I thought clearly  you can toe the line, you can mouth off, you can nose your way into something, elbow people, knee people," she explained. And the list went on, so Curzan got to thinking about what you couldn't turn into a verb. 

What about ankle? Can you ankle? Apparently you can. The Oxford English Dictionary says that in early 20th century slang "ankling" was a way to talk about walking. And bicyclists use the term too.

Ear? Can you ear someone? Shakespeare said of course when he said, "I eared her language."

Of course there are chin ups and chin wags and Curzan says that in the late 19th century in the United States "to chin" meant to chat. 

Hip. Certainly there is no verb for hip, right?

Not so, says Curzan. "This is a really useful verb that I don't hear anymore but I think we should revive," she says. "Which is to hip a child. As in to carry a child on your hip."

So now all you hip people go out there and shimmy and shake your Sunday away!

–  Cheyna Roth, Michigan Radio Newsroom