The “malin” rhymes with “Allen”. My late father used to say this all the time - from the context, he was using it roughly as a synonym for “son of a gun”. The canonical example is: he’s trying to loosen a rusty nut and it won’t go, and he says to the stuck nut, “Come on, you malinjohn!” He only used it in reference to inanimate objects.
I’ve never heard anyone else say it, can’t find it in any dictionary, and only found one reference to it after Googling multiple plausible spellings. The one reference I found claims it’s an Italian word for “nigger”, which I have been unable to corroborate.
Mind you, my dad used a lot of words I never heard anyone else use, most of which he brought with him from Appalachia – words like “blow-gum” for bubble gum, “stob” for a stick, and “brogans” for ankle-high boots. I don’t know if malinjohn is an Appalachianism or not, but I strongly suspect it is.
I’m interested in this word because it may provide a clue to the etymology of the ethnological term Melungeon. I always thought the most likely origin was from the French “melange”, because after all, Melungeons are mixed-race people. A few years back someone unearthed the term “malengin” from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, meaning a deceptive or crafty person, and claimed Melungeon could have come from malengin. I thought that was far-fetched, but then I was trying to open a paint can the other night and “malinjohn” bubbled up from my subconscious. Is a malinjohn the same as a malengin? Do people still use this term somewhere deep in the hills? If so, it suddenly seems a lot more likely as cognate for Melungeon. If you’re not familiar with the Melungeons, they were generally considered lowlifes, almost outcasts, wherever they lived.
I guess the final irony is that my dad’s ancestry does appear to include some Melungeons, and I discussed this with him the last couple of years he was alive. But it never dawned on either of us that there could be a connection between his old imprecation and “Melungeon”. I doubt he would have known what it meant or remembered where he picked it up even if I’d asked him.
I think it would make a lot of sense for that to be the source of your father’s word, since it would accord with both his regional roots, and with the connotations of the word to refer to a sort of “mongrelness,” or questionable parentage.
That may well be the case. But malengin predates Melungeon by hundreds of years, and it has been claimed (sometimes exaggeratedly) that some Elizabethan words now obsolete everywhere else have been preserved in Appalachia. So I wonder if malengin was the source of both malinjohn and Melungeon, or if it turned into malinjohn first and then malinjohn was applied to the “mongrels”. I think it would help to have more insight into what malinjohn means.
I don’t think my dad had ever heard the word Melungeon until I raised the issue with him. The Melungeon ancestors were news to him, and he wasn’t the type to have hidden that sort of thing (on the contrary, it would have fit right in with his outsider-badass personality). Then again, he told me once that his mother’s nickname was “Gypsy”, which tends to make Melungeon enthusiasts nod their heads knowingly.
This part’s a clear error; the Italian slang that’s being referenced here is probably melanzana, literally “eggplant.” The racist usage is sometimes restricted to blacks who “act white” ('cause eggplant’s white on the inside – get it?) :rolleyes:
Now things are getting interesting. The thread samclem linked to pretty convincingly establishes that melangiani really was Ital-Am slang for black person and the example was from Cleveland. Unfortunately for our little etymological investigation, Dad was “contaminated” by several possible Italian sources. I can’t therefore determine whether malinjohn is English or Italian. It is certainly possible my dad picked it up from people he met when he moved to, guess where, Cleveland. He also knew a few Italians from the Appalachian coal camps he grew up in. My mom is Cleveland Ital-Am, although I never heard her family (or anyone else) use the term. I don’t think he knew what it meant, because he never used it to refer to a black person (he had a long list of relatively mild words like “hunky” he used to refer to other ethnic groups and malinjohn would have fit right in, but he never used it that way. It was strictly applied to inanimate objects)
My dad had a distinct habit of picking up interesting-sounding words from others. He used to say “kwayonies” (ph) which years later I realized was cojones, which he had picked up from Mexicans he’d worked with in Texas.
What I’d be interested in now is whether anyone has heard the term in a context that is more or less free from possible Italian influence. That would suggest malinjohn came from the English malengin. But as it stands now, it looks like Dad’s “malinjohn” may well be from the Ital-Am melangiani.
The Italian mobsters in an Elmore Leonard novel used the word eggplant, and I figured out from context they meant black people. Then, Forrest Whitaker, talking about playing Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland, said Amin was from an ethnic group in east Africa that’s very dark, almost purple. Whitaker had to be made up in that color for the film. I never thought of the white-on-the-inside inference. I wondered if the eggplant=black people usage grew from those very dark, almost purple, Africans.
Leonard’s mobsters also called some group Chaldeans, and I never figured that one out.