Printable Version
Pronunciation: king-pin Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Headpin, a large bolt in a central position, such as the vertical bolt used in an old trailer hitch. 2. A person who plays a central role in a system, on whom the whole system depends.

Notes: Kingpin is an extraordinary English lexical item: a disyllabic word spelled exactly as it is pronounced! As a rule, compounds cannot beget lexical families; that includes today's word. Of course, king is used in other compounds like kingmaker, kingsize, and kingfisher.

In Play: The original sense of today's word is less often used since the invention of the modern trailer hitch: "Horace was stunned to see the old trailer he was pulling pass him on the highway when the kingpin holding the trailer to the car snapped." Much more often heard these days is the figurative sense: "F. B. Iglesias saw movie stars casually intermingling with Mafia kingpins at the Hollywood party."

Word History: Today's Good Word obviously comprises king + pin. In Old English king was cyning, from Proto-Germanic kuningaz, source also of Danish konge, Dutch koning, German König, and Swedish konung. The origin of kuningaz is lost in the fogs of time, but it was widely borrowed by Baltic, Slavic, and Finno-Ugric languages: Russian knyaz "prince", Polish ksiądz "priest", Serbian knez "prince", Lithuanian kunigas "clergyman", and Finnish and Estonian kuningas "king".

Pin descended from Old English pinn "peg, fastener". Best guess on this one is PIE pet-na- a suffixed form of pet- "to fly, flow", source also of Latin penna "feather", from Old Latin petna. Pet- picked up the Germanic suffix -er to become feather in English and Feder in German. In Slavic languages the suffix is -ica, which produced ptica "bird" in Russian and Serbian. Since feathers were used as writing instruments rather than fasteners, the semantic trail becomes extremely arduous at this point. (Now let's show our gratitude to Anna Jung, a major contributor since 2015, for today's surprisingly interesting Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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