Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"Shimmy" makes its move

In last week’s After Deadline column, Philip Corbett's list of recent goofs in the New York Times included this:
Carrying their passports, a loaf of bread and a plastic bag filled with orange juice, the men shimmied across the ship’s mooring rope that night ... 
Tsk-tsk, said Corbett: "'Shimmy' is a dance move involving a whole lot of shaking. To climb using hands and legs is to 'shinny' or just 'shin.'"

I learned this distinction too, as a young editor. But recently, I've begun to wonder whether it will -- or should -- survive.

My doubts began as I read coverage of the New York prisoners David Sweat and Richard Matt, whose daring escape involved "balancing on catwalks and shimmying down pipes" (in the New York Times) and shimmying "down an underground pipe" (in the Wall Street Journal). At first I took this as an example of the meaning's migration -- shimmy being used for shinny -- but I was enlightened when I read more detailed accounts. The two escapees actually exited inside the pipes, wiggling along like Little Egypt ("she crawls on her belly like a reptile!”). It was no dance move, but it wasn't "shinning," either. 

In many news examples, it's true, people who "shimmy" up flagpoles and down drainpipes are really shinning or shinnying. But is shimmy really "a grave mistake," as Baltimore Sun blogger John McIntyre once decreed, in such cases? Shinning up a pole requires a fair amount of hip-waggling, even if it's not done to music. As descriptions of bodily movement, the verbs overlap quite a bit; maybe it's not worth the effort to keep them separated.

Whatever the reason, shimmy has moved in on shin(ny) in a big way. I compared them on Google's Ngram Viewer in several different conjugations, and all the results were variations on this pattern: Shimmy rising in the '60s, then more steeply in the '80s, to challenge shin and shinny

And the usage mavens have been looking the other way. Shimmy vs. shin(ny) does appear in Paul Brians's list of Common Errors in English Usage, but it's not in the NYT stylebook, or the AP, or in Garner's Modern American Usage. I checked five or six of my other go-to usage references without finding it.

So maybe it's time to add shimmy and shin(ny) to McIntyre's excellent list of "dog whistle edits" -- the distinctions only copy editors know and love -- and admit that for increasing numbers of readers, shimmy is a perfectly good verb to describe wiggling one's way up (or down) a rope or pole. 


John Cowan said...

Mm, it seems to me that the first quotation might in fact be entirely correct. To clamber up and down pipes, or even ropes, is no doubt shinn(y)ing. But to move across a rope? Unless the men were tight- or slack-rope walkers, they probably held onto the rope with their hands and shimmied their hips in order to gain enough forward momentum to swing their arms forward. I admit I'm not clear how you carry your passport in this case, unless in your pocket.

empty said...

I can shinny up a tree if I have to, but I can't shimmy for the life of me. I hate to be an old grump, but they're just not the same.