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What does "Hinky" Mean?

Michael Pollick
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The word hinky suggests a feeling of suspicion or heightened concern, as if something were off kilter, out of place or simply not right. A group of men standing on a street corner wearing masks could be considered hinky to a police officer, or a husband's explanation of his late arrival could sound hinky to his spouse. A suspected criminal's dubious details about his alibi could sound hinky to an interrogator. The word is often used to describe any questionable or suspicious turn of events which raises doubts in a person's mind.

The origin of the word hinky is a matter of debate. Some sources suggest the modern word hinky is a corruption of a black English slang word, hincty, popularized during the 1920s. A person described as hincty would be seen as snobbish or aloof, affecting a false tone of superiority or putting on airs. It is possible that the word hincty became corrupted in the more easily pronounceable hinky, although it is not clear how the original meaning would have shifted from snobbish and arrogant to shifty or out of place. This is one reason why other etymologists believe the two words are not directly related.

Another theory suggests that the word hinky originated as undercover police or organized crime lingo during the 1920s and 1930s. Several crime novels written during that time do use the word to describe a circumstance or turn of events which causes nervousness or heightened concerned. A nervous henchman may start acting jumpy or anxious, as if he were anticipating an impending attack or police raid. This twitchy or unsettling behavior is often described as hinky, inspiring the main character to become extra vigilant or guarded. The word has continued to morph, and now suggests anything which appears out of whack. Oftentimes the actual hinkiness is so subtle that a person relies more on the gut instinct it inspires.

As a pop culture saying, many people will use the term to describe any disturbing or concern-inducing behavior. A car's failing brakes could be described as hinky, for instance, or a neighbor's explanation about a noise. Oftentimes a sudden or unexpected change in a workplace policy or a school day routine can be characterized as hinky, especially if the change is not immediately followed by an explanation. Sometimes a series of small questionable events may cause a person to feel something hinky is occurring. When doubts and fears replace confidence in a given situation, a sensation of hinkiness afoot is rarely far behind.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick , Writer
As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

Discussion Comments

By Oceana — On Sep 06, 2011

When I brought my boyfriend over to meet my parents, my dad later pulled me aside and told me that he seemed hinky. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something was off about his personality.

I didn’t see it for awhile, but eventually, it became apparent. He would suddenly change moods and become irritable and standoffish. I didn’t like being around him when he acted this way.

Once it got to the point that he stayed in a bad mood, I broke up with him. My dad was right about his hinkiness. Maybe I will pay closer attention to his judgment of character next time.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 06, 2011

I’ve only heard my grandparents use this term. My grandad used to be an investigator for the police department, so he picked up that word during his career.

He told me about a time that he saw a group of young men hanging around outside a jewelry store just after sunset. He was across the street in a diner, looking out the window at them.

He said they kept looking around, and they appeared to be plotting something. They were the definition of hinky.

Suddenly, one of them slung a rock through the front door of the store. They all scrambled to get inside, but my grandad and his partner were too close to the scene for them to get away with their crime. They captured the hinky men before they could steal anything.

By kylee07drg — On Sep 06, 2011

The first time I heard this word was when my sister suspected that her boyfriend was cheating on her. She said something was hinky about his behavior. I remember giggling at the sound of it and asking her what it meant.

She told me that he used to call her every day, but now, he was going two or three days without talking to her. They used to see each other every Friday night and all throughout the weekend, but suddenly, he had plans with friends that bumped her out of the picture.

She thought his hinkiness meant that he was cheating on her. However, she found out from one of his friends that he just missed spending time with the boys, so she could deal with that.

By StarJo — On Sep 05, 2011

I have a paranoid friend who uses this word very often. He picks up on little changes in people’s behavior, and he says that something seems hinky about their demeanor.

Sometimes he is right. He picked up on the strangeness that all his friends exuded while planning his surprise party. They were leaving him out of conversations for awhile and suddenly going silent when he approached.

He told me that something hinky was going on with them. He thought that they were all abandoning him from the group. He sure was relieved when they surprised him with a birthday party.

By chivebasil — On Sep 04, 2011

My grandmother is a black woman who grew up in Mississippi and I have heard her use the word hinky a few times. It doesn't come up that often, but if she feel wronged by someone, especially someone in power it will start to come out. I can't say if this is a "black" expression because I have never heard anyone else use it but my grandmother picked it up somewhere.

By Ivan83 — On Sep 04, 2011

I like to read old comics from the 20s and 30s and the word hinky shows up pretty often, especially in the detective and private eye stories. I always thought it was kind of a silly word, one of those pieces of slang that doesn't really sound like what it means.

I remember there was one comic that had a minor character who was a bumbling Irish detective. Over the run of the comic he developed this running gaga where he would get suspicious of people and places that there was no reason to be suspicious. Invariably the bad guy was sneaking out the door while he was distracted. He used the word hinky a lot.

By truman12 — On Sep 03, 2011

Wow, I don't think I've ever heard this word used before and I feel like I hang around with the type of people and end up in the type of circumstances where this word might come up.

I guess this just goes to show how much slang there is out there. I hear new ones all the time. Its almost like people get bored with the words that we have available and can't help but make up their own.

Michael Pollick

Michael Pollick

Writer

As a frequent contributor to Language & Humanities, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a...
Learn more
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