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Musings on etymology[edit]

This is a coined word (nonce?), hence likely no terribly meaningful etymology, but it’s amusing to speculate on how it may have been coined (on the talk page). The first point, as noted in the references, is that it “has a Grecian savour”, most obviously in the ph, but also in the sounds used generally (k); the terminal -us actually sounds more Latin (second declension nominative), perhaps a mangled form of the nominative form of second declension -ος (o-stem), and regardless quite appropriate for the mock-pomposity of Runyon’s prose.

In more detail, there’s an obvious dink syllable is the middle, which I’ve heard used as a general term of abuse (“idiot” – possibly from slang “penis” sense), and is an easy enough onomatopoeia in English (compare dinky, rinky-dink, and dinkum), which gives analysis as phe- + dink + -us (mock-pompous affixes as adornments).

Further afield, -os is apparently a (plural) suffix used in Yiddish loanwords, which may have influenced this word, due to Yiddish influence in New York language and theater vocabulary especially.

—Nils von Barth (nbarth) (talk) 11:07, 15 May 2011 (UTC)
Oh dear – it appears there has been some more analysis of this word in the literature, most interestingly the suggestion that the prefix’s phonology follows a regular sound rule. I’ve added these, with references.
—Nils von Barth (nbarth) (talk) 12:05, 15 May 2011 (UTC)


I’ve tagged this as a nonce term – it appears to have been coined for the nonce, and found very limited use outside of this, primarily quotations. I don’t know what the strict Wiktionary usage of “nonce” is – i.e., if it must only have been used once, and occasional use by other authors (in the manner of quotation or allusion) makes a word no longer a nonce, or whether an obscure coinage which has not entered the language generally (as in this word) qualifies as a nonce. Clarifications are welcome!

—Nils von Barth (nbarth) (talk) 11:49, 15 May 2011 (UTC)
Further research suggests that Runyon used it as a nonce (it appears nowhere else in his writing, as per b.g.c), and the one other use (Gus Lee, 1994), while presumably an allusion, is at best a general slang term of abuse, not precisely the same sense:
“Like yur Uncle Shen, or whatsis phedinkus name.”
Basically: what’s his stupid name
Thus, this seems as close to being a strict nonce as possible, without strictly only appearing once.
—Nils von Barth (nbarth) (talk) 12:14, 15 May 2011 (UTC)


The page is now rather detailed for such a rarely-used term – dare I say definitive? Barring further use by other authors or latter-day analysis, this page includes to my knowledge all (non-definition) references that can be gleaned from Google Books – the original use, the one other use (likely an allusion), and two brief analyses; the only other published references are definitions.

While the word may still have occasional life of its own, this seems as close to “comprehensive” as one can get for a word, and this rare conclusiveness is only possible because of how rarely it appears in the corpus (i.e., essentially a nonce).

—Nils von Barth (nbarth) (talk) 12:10, 15 May 2011 (UTC)