A few weeks ago the American Heritage Dictionary’s blog posted a note on its usage panel’s response to a question about the confusion of shimmy and shinny.
This is their description of the traditional distinction: “The shimmy is a dance that was popular in the 1920s and is characterized by rapid shaking of the body. To shimmy means ‘to shake the body in or as if in dancing the shimmy.’ Shimmy, possibly an alteration of the word chemise, has no etymological connection to the similar-sounding verb shinny, meaning ‘to climb by gripping and pulling alternately with the hands and legs.’ ” (Shimmy can also describe the vibration or wobbling of the wheels of an automobile.)
When the occasion rises to explain the distinction to my students or colleagues at the paragraph factory, I try to leave them with a set of contrasting images. Shinnying, I say, is how you were supposed to climb that rope in gym class (and likely failed to do); shimmying is what Blaze Starr used to do on the stage of the Two O’Clock Club on The Block, earning the loving attention of Earl Long, governor of Louisiana and brother of the martyred Huey.*
At American Heritage, a majority of the panelists, fifty-three percent, allowed shimmied for the climbing sense. And an overwhelming ninety-seven percent insisted on shimmied for the dancing sense.
When two words have sounds as similar and shimmy and shinny, some confusion is inevitable. And American Heritage notes the coincidence that both words refer to motion, which compounds the possibility of confusion. The result: Shinny is losing out. That corresponds to my experience in editing; it’s always shimmy for shinny.
Nevertheless, I’ll take my stand with the forty-seven percent. Both words come up so seldom in text that I can excuse my indulgence in a preference for a traditional but vanishing distinction.
*Ms. Starr passed this mortal life a year ago at the age of eighty-three.