Origin of phrase: "gin up"

A friend and I were discussing the origin of the phrase “gin up,” meaning to concoct, devise, or improvise (a solution to a deficiency or other problem). For example: “We lacked a few ingredients that the recipe called for, so we just ginned up a little something from what we had on hand.”

My friend is hoping that the etymology is related to djinn, suggesting the magical nature of the improvised solution. I speculate that the phrase is related to engine. But I can’t find anything in the OED or the unabridged Webster’s that suggests an etymology – in fact, the expression is conspicuously absent from both references.

Any ideas? Thanks.

Sure the phrase isn’t “chin up”, i.e. keep your chin up, look ahead, be brave, overcome the problem at hand instead of moping, etc.

There is a phrase chin up, but it’s not the one that I’m asking about.

My American Heritage says that the transitive verb “gin” comes from “Middle English gin, short for engin, ENGINE.”

Dictionary.com concurs; ‘gin’ = contraption, device, mechanism, engine. - Think Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg and ‘gin up’=improvise makes perfect sense.

I predict, however, that your friend will unwaveringly stick to his preferred etymology - that’s the way it usually works.

There is a device called a gin pole that is used to hoist and mount an antenna on top of a tower. I don’t know where the name came from.

I always thought it referred to the idea that in prohibition people made gin often referred to as “bathtub” gin as an alchol to drink. It was made out whatever they could come up with and some outrageous looking distilleries. Think MAS*H
Hawkeye was making gin in the Swamp..

my websters has two different main definition for gin.
the first is the verb gin short for ginnin meaning to begin.

the second is the noun gin, a modified version of engine which refers to a mechanical device (ie: a cotton gin)

It comes from the 2nd definition I posted. A subset of this NOUN is a machine used to move heavy objects.

I’d always assumed the ‘gin’ related to the card game of the same name. So to ‘Gin Up’ would be similar to ‘ante up’. But maybe not.

Keep in mind that “engine” meant “device” before there were modern steam or internal combustion engines.

This same question had a lot of comments over at the American Dialect Society mailing list over the last three years.

There seems to be room for multiple points of view.
There seems to be a British version of the phrase and a separate, distinct American one, if not two.

I’ll try to post something clearer later.

t-keela, how is the second gin pronounced? The same ‘g’ as in the first, or hard as in begin?

1.) gin, 'gin\ vb. to start again (with a hard G pronunciation) archaic: BEGIN

2.) gin, 'jin\ n. (mechanical device) a. snare or trap, b. a machine for raising heavy objects, c. cotton gin

3.) gin, 'jin\ *n.[/] (short for genever) bitter distilled alcohol origin the Netherlands

  • The last definition (3) of gin is used in the US to often describe alcohol that is homemade using a concoction of variable sources using often ingenious techniques.

*If the OP was referring to moving or raising an object, he could very well have been referring to the (2)nd definition of gin as I have heard it used this way a few times. I own a wench truck and the cable from the wench travel through a pulley suspended from an A-frame to lift the object. They are called “gin poles”. Usually it’ll be said “to wench something up” but I’ve heard some old timers say “gin it up”.

*The (1)st def. of gin would probably not IMHO be considered related to the OP. Although I have frequently heard folks use the term gin in conversation.

As I have very little experience with the card game gin, I will leave that definition to the experts.

Does that help at all? :confused:

Haul a lot of wenches, do you? :dubious:

:smiley: not as many as I used to when I had a winch truck… :wink:

No one mentioned it, but there is either a) an alternate spelling of the same phrase or b) another phrase that is easily conflated - GEN UP

Now, I couldn’t find the etymology on either for certain, but personally if the meaning you want is “concoct” then I favor some relationship with bathtub gin.

Here are some links that should muddy the waters:

(my favorite)

(the predominant answer given in this thread, I think)

(scroll down to Word Origin & History)

(best site I found for your question - besides S.D. obviously :slight_smile:
And now for the other phrase “gen up”:


BTW a lot of dictionaries don’t have one phrase or the other (eg Cambridge doesn’t have “ginned up” but it does have “genned up”).

Did you tell us how the phrase was used originally, I mean, when you heard/read it first? Which of the two definitions makes the most sense in that context?

And another question to the forum: if the phrase comes from “begin” then would it be pronounced with a hard /g/ sound? (I was informed that this etymology is especially Scottish/Appalachian).

Indeed. Pretty much any relatively complex device, fuel or electric power not required, could be an “engine”. “Engines of war” were catapults, among other things. My favorite example of the earlier meaning of engine is from Gulliver’s Travels, when the Lilliputians, itemizing the contents of his pockets, don’t know what to make of his pocket watch and refer to it as a “great Engine”.

I might have missed it, but I don’t think anyone here has mentioned the cotton gin yet.

Interesting. I’ve never encountered “gen up” that I remember. I imagine that makes it pretty exclusively English. But I don’t see anything in the definitions you cited that would make it a variant of gin up.

Check post #8.

I guess I always assumed it came from the Prohibition era, when “bathtub gin” was concocted in an attempt to taste like the real thing. “Gin up” = “throw something together in an attempt.”

But now that I think about it, I had no basis for that. I can see the “engine” origin…