The latest entry in our series of extracts from The Accidental Dictionary is the story behind the tiddlywink—which began life not as a game, but as a place. And even when it finally did become a game, it wasn’t originally the one you think it was...
One of the earliest recorded references to a tiddlywink in English dates from 1844—in which it is fairly uncompromisingly accused of having the ability to be a person’s downfall:
Such is a brief sketch of the nature and objects of this most abominable business [hire purchase], which does more to demoralize and ruin the lower classes than a Tom and Jerry, tidley-wink, or gin-shop.
Joseph Hewlett, Parsons and Widows (1844)
Does a colourful counter used to flip other colourful counters into a cup really have the potential to ruin someone? Never say never, of course, but it’s unlikely. Instead, the tiddlywink being mentioned here is nothing like the tiddlywinks we know today.
In Victorian slang, a tiddlywink was an unlicensed or down-market pub. Aside from the fact that tiddly has been used as a euphemism for being drunk (and before that for an alcoholic drink itself) since the early nineteenth century, there’s little etymological evidence to go on here and the word’s precise origins remain a mystery.
One theory maintains that tiddly might have begun life as a jocular, deliberately childish pronunciation of “little”, which perhaps in combination with the old-fashioned use of wink to mean “a brief amount of time” or “a tiny amount” (as in “I haven’t slept a wink!”) might imply that the original tiddlywink was a quick tipple, or a mouthful of drink—or else somewhere where just such a restorative could be purchased.
That’s just a theory, of course, and with so little evidence to go on it’s impossible to decide whether there’s much truth to it. In fact, in a fine example of an etymological chicken-or-the-egg problem, it could be that tiddly derives from tiddlywink rather than the other way around, which would cast doubt on this entire idea. No matter where its origins might lie, however, by the mid 1850s tiddlywink was already being used as the name of a bar game—but even then, it wasn’t the game we know today.
Originally, tiddlywink was a variation of dominoes that, according to Routledge’s Every Boy’s Annual (1870), involved “four, six or eight players” who, unlike a normal game of dominoes, each have the right to a second go after they play a double; the game ends when “the one who first plays out all his dominoes calls ‘tidley-wink’”.
By the 1890s however, this game had fallen out of fashion, and the game of tiddlywinks as we know it today quickly took its place—although it was apparently a lot more exciting back then than it is today:
After dinner we all played the most exciting game that ever was invented, called Tiddleywinks. It consists of flipping counters into a bowl, and being a good number we played at two tables, one table against another, and the excitement was tremendous. I assure you that everyone’s character changes at Tiddleywinks in the most marvellous way. To begin with, everyone begins to scream at the top of their voices and to accuse everyone else of cheat. Even I forgot my shyness and howled with excitement ... I assure you, no words can picture either the intense excitement or the noise. I almost scream in describing it.
Lady Emily Lytton, a letter to Reverend Whitwell Elwin (24 April 1892)