Oz “never did give nothing to” the Tin Man, to quote an old and ungrammatical song by the band America, but this column will do right by tin this week. The impetus is the upcoming movie by Steven Spielberg, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.
In a trailer for the film, twin detectives Thompson and Thomson (Dupont and Dupond in the original French books by Belgium’s Hergé) are investigating a mystery alongside Tintin, the teenage reporter who sports a permanent cowlick. “Never fear, Tintin,” one detective says before his colleague tumbles down a staircase. “The evidence is safe with us.”
This being an English-language film, Thompson or Thomson uses the English pronunciation of Tintin (rhymes with gin) rather than the original French pronunciation (rhymes with fin de siècle). Having grown up in Montreal reading the French version in school, I confess that I find the English pronunciation jarring. This is perhaps appropriate, since tintinnabulation is a ringing, ultimately from the Latin tinnire, to ring or clang.
Beyond that, I wonder why the switch in pronunciation was necessary. English-speakers don’t pronounce the first name of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard as Gene-Luke, or the surname of Hercule Poirot as Poy-rott, or Hergé as Hurge or Hurr-jay instead of the correct Air-jay (with a soft j). As a footnote, Belgian writer-illustrator Georges Remi created Hergé as his pen name by reversing his initials; in French, R-G sounds like Hergé.
But then, I can’t figure out why Tintin’s white fox terrier Milou had to be renamed Snowy for an English audience, or Milyn for a Welsh audience, or Natkhat for a Hindi audience. And since we’re on the subject, how is it that Tintin, supposedly a journalist, seldom files a story?
At any rate, that’s what brought tin to mind. Despite being a useful metal (no bronze without it) that protects against corrosion and figured in the writings of Alfred the Great, it has been treated with rhetorical disrespect and associated with the cheap and second-rate. A self-deprecating song by the Monkees in the movie Head used tin as a synonym for a mass-market product of little distinction: “The money’s in./ We’re made of tin./ We’re here to give you more.”
A tinhorn gambler is one who sticks to the cheaper tables. In the Old West, while players who could tolerate high stakes favoured a card game called faro, gamblers who were less flush played chuck-a-luck, in which they bet on the outcome of a roll of three dice. The chuck-a-luck operator shook the dice in a metal device resembling a tin horn.
If a person has a tin ear, she is tone-deaf, unable to tell quality from garbage. Henry Ford’s Model T was known as a tin lizzie, the lizzie being short for limousine. Tinny describes sounds that are thin, missing lower frequencies.
A tin handshake is a lousy severance package, inferior to the golden parachute. Since the 1800s, tin-pot has been a synonym for small or insignificant, but in the case of a tin-pot dictator, the phrase also conjures up the image of a low-rent ruler who wears an upside-down tin pot on his head in place of a crown or loftier headgear.
Because tinsel is a cheap way to decorate a Christmas tree, one might think it has some link to tin. However, it derives from the Old French estincelle (modern French étincelle, spark or flash), which comes from the Latin scintilla, spark, from which we also get scintillating. The Latin word also was used figuratively for a tiny amount: There isn’t a scintilla of evidence.
In the 20th century, the shininess of tinsel inspired the nickname Tinseltown for Hollywood, which, in honour of Spielberg’s film, may this December be called Tintinseltown. But only if it is pronounced to rhyme with vin ordinaire.