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What Is The Origin Of (139)?…

Blown to smithereens

This is a rather dramatic phrase which is used to describe the consequences of a large bang or explosion. Bits and pieces, shard and shrapnel flies everywhere and what you are left with is a rather charred bit of ground and some smoking remains. Smithereens mean tiny bits or shattered fragments.

Smithereens is an unusual word in that it is rarely, if ever, found in the singular. That makes sense as it would be a pretty poor show if a bang or explosion created only one fragment. It is also usually found as a noun in the company of rather aggressive verbs such as blown, bashed, dashed, smashed or shot to. Interestingly, D H Lawrence used it as a collective noun for birds in his collection of travel essays, Mornings in Mexico, published in 1927; “then someone mysteriously touched the button, and the sun went bang, with smithereens of birds bursting in all directions.” Works rather well, methinks.

As to its origin, we need look no further than the Irish Gaelic word smiodar, which means a piece or fragment, and its diminutive form, smidirin. Een in Gaelic is also a diminutive form as in colleen, a small girl. So smithereens technically comprises of two diminutives. Whether this is to reflect that the fragments are as small as they can be is unclear. When the word crossed the Irish Sea it had a variety of forms, the principal variants being smiddereens, which at least preserves the original root, and shivereens before it settled down to smithereens.

It has been used in its modern sense since the start of the 19th century at least. Francis Plowden, in his History of Ireland, published in 1801, records a threat made by Orangemen to a Mr Pounden. “If you don’t be off directly, by the ghost of William, our deliverer, and by the orange we wear, we will break your carriage in smithereens, and hough your cattle and burn your house.”  Houghing was severing the tendons of animals. Charming!

Somewhere else things are blown to is Kingdom come. The origin of the phrase kingdom come is straight forward. It was used in the King James’ version of the Christian bible. in Matthew 6, where the disciple details the Lord’s Prayer; “Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. etc”  The meaning is pretty straightforward too. Christ’s kingdom will come or return as many of the Utopian sects believed. Topographically it could reflect some utopian idyll to which the fragments are blown. This suggested interpretation doesn’t sit too well with the Greek text of Matthew where the verb eltheto is an imperative, aorist imperative if we are being pedantic. So the more correct translation should be let thy kingdom come.

There may be a temporal sense to the phrase. The thing has been blown so far away that it will take until the coming of Christ’s kingdom to retrieve it. I’m not convinced by that either and I’m left with the conclusion that it might just be a euphemism or, perhaps more accurately, a minced oath. These, like cor blimey, gadzooks, shoot and freaking, are designed specifically to avoid swearing.

Personally, I will stick with the Irish if I ever need to describe something that has been shattered into small pieces.