This is the latest installment in a regular series of researched and reported stories that @dave asked me to write about things of broad interest to the community. Previous articles have tracked down the history of SHOUTY CAPS and the meaning behind Etaoin Shrdlu.
Every term in typography seems to have a rich history, sometimes with its origins forgotten. That includes a very common one: dingbats. Dingbats is another word for typographic ornaments and miscellaneous non-text characters, a sub-category of which involving fancy borders and bits, often with stylized flowers, are called fleurons or florets.
It’s a great-sounding word, although you’ve likely heard it in at least one other context—as an insult for someone who allegedly who lacks both common sense and intelligence. Archie Bunker in the legendary TV show All in the Family regularly abused his wife, Edith, with this term (and his son-in-law, Michael, with “meathead”).
But that’s not all! Bizarrely, dingbats has dozens of definitions stretching back into the 1800s, few of them seemingly having anything in common. No one is quite sure of its origins, why it has so much diversity, or even why it’s used to refer to type.
No authoritative source claims clear etymology for dingbat. The best of the consensus is that the word derives from “ding,” which now means a light hit or dent, but used to have a denotation that meant a heavy blow. “Bat” is more straightforward, referring directly to a stick of wood, like that used in cricket.
But these etymological question marks (the Oxford English Dictionary literally prefaces its etymology with “?”) don’t explain how the earliest extensive uses in the 1860s all refer to imprecise amounts of money. (Such as in Beecher’s Magazine in 1870.) It’s only later in the 1800s that usages start to proliferate.
For instance, in an 1878 newspaper account in the Daily Nebraska State Journal of a letter—something related to the Potter Committee investigation of disputed 1876 presidential election outcomes in four states—this slangy passage appears. (Whistling for money means having little chance of getting it.)
They do say that [Treasury Secretary John] Sherman fooled you badly; that you gave him that letter on promises to pay, and that, after getting it, he told you to whistle for your dingbats.
In the 1877 edition of Dictionary of Americanisms, however, we get this array of definitions centering around projectiles, but with “a piece of money” thrown in:
A bat of wood that may be thrown (dinged); a piece of money; a cannon ball; a bullet.
[quotation] Instead of feathers and bristles flying in all directions [shooting fowls], it has been found necessary [by the United States government] to expend the dingbats, to put something more substantial on the “fly” [in motion] to bring our unruly relatives to their P’s and Q’s.—*N.H. Palladium, Letter from U.S. Ship “Cumberland,” Dec. 25, 1861.
At least a few language gurus think the “ding” part relates to the Dutch or German for “thing,” making it a sort of generic word, like “thingumbob,” “dingus,” “thingummy,” “thing-a-ma-jig,” and others that don’t have any specific meaning, and combine “thing/ding” plus some rolling around in the mouth of syllables. (The word could have formed separately from two origins, too.)
That could explain why, by 1895, you have Philip Hale, best known as a Melville scholar and music critic, writing in the Boston Journal that dingbat has the following diverse meanings. Here’s the full definition in 1896 in Dialect Notes) with geographical and institutional notes about where he gathered usages:
(1) Balls of dung on buttocks of sheep or cattle. Vt. [Vermont]
(2) Blow or slap on the buttocks. Me. [Maine], NH, Vt., Conn. (Also in form dingbatlers.)
(3) Flying missile. Penobscot River (noted as common among boys and river drivers).
(4) Squabble of words or pushing. Me.
(5) Money. Me. (Saco, 1855), Philadelphia, Ill.
(6) In some of the N.E. [New England] schools, the word is student slang for various kinds of muffins or biscuit. Perhaps from (1) or (3). Phillips Academy (Mass.), Wilbraham Academy (Mass.), Suffield Literary Institute (Conn.) [A reference in an 1893 history of the Wesleyan Academy suggests it’s a tough loaf of bread.]
(7) Affectionate embrace of mothers hugging and kissing their children. Ga. [Georgia] “Ma just can’t help, she has got to put the ding-bats right on.”
(8) Term of admiration. “They are regular ding-bats” (speaking of girls).
Note definition 8 particularly, given the later shift to a negative. But this varied set of definitions is nowhere near complete. Dingbats was a popular name for baseball teams, amateur and professional, and one can understand the combination of pun and literal meaning that made it so.
In the Daily Independent newspaper (Helena, Montana), the March 31, 1894 edition uses it in a much more general sense:
He had gone to the symphony concert expecting to hear “After the Ball” with variations and “Daisy Bell” without them, but when they turned a whole raft of con motos and scherzos and op. 27’s and appoggiaturas and other chromatic dingbats loose on him he began to wonder what he was there for.
It’s also certain that for a time dingbat and brickbat were used interchangeably, and definition 6 above—about a loaf of bread—might be related. This usage seems to have survived in cartoonist George Herriman’s memory and in those of his readers. He created the well-known strip Krazy Kat (1913–1944), which features the titular character. Krazy loves Ignatz mouse, who rejects her or their love—Krazy’s gender is not quite binary—and Ignatz regularly lands a smacker with a brick on Krazy. Brickbats referred to a brick or a broken-off piece of one thrown as a weapon, or pieces of bricks in a sock used like a club, so Ignatz is throwing a brickbat.
How does this connect with the dingbat? Krazy and Ignatz started life as a secondary set of action at the bottom of another cartoon strip, though still within that strip’s rectangular borders. After a few days, they moved to a separate, squat set of rectangles at the bottom of the strip. The name of the cartoon? The Dingbats, named for its non-hero, E. Pluribus Dingbat, a man always at war with his wife, both of whom are aspirational film actors. Dingbat’s wife also routinely engages in cartoon domestic violence against E. Pluribus, but rarely with bricks.
Newspapers sometimes ran a “bouquets and brickbats” column, the equivalent of modern “raves and rants,” and an early Krazy Kat animated feature was called, naturally, Bokays and Brickbatz. (It’s not clearly in the public domain until 2021, and I can’t find a copy online.)
The Dingbats (1910–1916) was so popular that it was turned into a stage play and performed widely. Cartoonists in their heyday were extremely well compensated and famous, hard as that might be to believe, and widely quoted. The strip changed its name during its run for about a year to The Family Upstairs, and shifted its focus during that time from the Pluribuses’ (Pluribi’s?) acting career to anger about noises coming from the upstairsniks. (Yiddish for the people who lived upstairs. Your neighbor was your nextdoornikeh.)
Herriman named the strip The Dingbats before he put Ignatz and Krazy in the scene, and he may have made the dingbat/brickbat connection. But the popularity of The Dingbats, despite its name change just a few years in, and its characters scattered and ridiculous nature could have led the word to shift to its more currently well-accepted general meaning.
But from all the above, there’s no mention of typesetting.