This guest post comes from Stan Carey, a freelance writer and editor living in the west of Ireland. He writes about the English language on his blog Sentence first.
When I looked down from the bridge
Trout were flipping the sky
Into smithereens, the stones
Of the wall warmed me.
(From ‘May‘, by Seamus Heaney.)
Leaving aside the rock band from New Jersey, and natives of Smithers, Canada, the word smithereens can be described as small broken bits or fragments. It is nearly always plural. Contrary to the bucolic imagery of Heaney’s verse, smithereens usually involve violence, or at least vigorous activity. Things get blown, bombed, blasted, bashed, dashed, smashed and shot to (or “into”) smithereens. This activity often implicates material items, such as bricks, cities, or the good crockery, but it can also occur in a more figurative sense: one’s hopes and dreams can be smashed to smithereens. Here are some examples from the British National Corpus:
Berlin is where old Europe died in 1945 – bombed into smithereens as no
British city was ever bombed.
There was a huge bang and the toilet bowl in one cubicle was blown to
(Daily Mirror, 1992)
The story is not primarily about salvation, but about severe judgement, and
it ends in tragedy, in hopes dashed most cruelly to smithereens.
(Trevor Dennis, Lo and Behold!, 1991)
And the fiery explosion which had resulted from two large egos clashing had
blown their marriage to smithereens.
(Peter Woodward, Nasser)
Merriam-Webster dates smithereens to 1829, while T. P. Dolan suggests 1825, citing Jeremiah Hogan’s The English Language in Ireland. This last source also mentions a dialectal Anglo-Irish verb smither, meaning “break in pieces”. The variant forms smiddereens and shivereens were recorded before the spelling stabilised. Though the etymology of smithereens is not definitively established, the word is generally thought to derive from the Irish smidrín /’smɪðriːn/ (“small fragment”, plural smidiríní), which is smiodar (fragment) with the common diminutive suffix -ín.
So maybe smither entered Irish as smiodar, became smidrín, and re-entered English as smithereens. Whatever its precise origin, the word seems to have been spreading steadily since its inception. In English As We Speak It In Ireland (1910), Irish historian P. W. Joyce wrote that:
smithereens is a grand word, and is gaining ground every day. Not very long ago I found it used in a public speech in London by a Parliamentary candidate – an Englishman; and he would hardly have used it unless he believed that it was fairly intelligible to his audience.
Joyce’s report suggests that smithereens might not have been wholly respectable a century ago, but that it was well on its way. These days the word is likely to show up almost anywhere, from satirical cartoons to Disney
musicals. A character in Sam McAughtry’s novel Touch & Go says: “Christ, I loved you to smithereens, the way you stood up to the teachers.” This is more or less the same expression as love you to bits, or to pieces: an informal or playful way of stressing the depth or intensity of the love.
The word’s popularity can probably be attributed at least partly to its euphony, the way it bounces out off the lips and teeth, pulling its Gaelic tail after it. But this is idle speculation. From its slightly obscure beginnings, in and out of Irish, smithereens has eased its way into all sorts of contexts, from descriptions of military destruction to poetic accounts of evolution. On that note, and to conclude, I leave you with a line by D. H. Lawrence:
Then someone mysteriously touched the button, and the sun went bang, with
smithereens of birds bursting in all directions.