Word and Phrase Origins
English Language

When people say "blown to smithereens," what are the smithereens?

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Answer

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Todd L Ross
07/25/2019

The “smithereens" in question are small pieces of something. The word entered the English language in the late 1700s, per Merriam-Webster. It probably comes from the Irish Gaelic smidiríní, which roughly translates to “little bits.” Usually, “smithereens" refers to the small bits created by an explosion or a sudden impact.

So, why do people use the phrase “blown to smithereens,” and why don’t we ever refer to “smithereens" on their own? You’ll never hear someone saying, for example, “My dog ripped up my pillow, and I’ve got pillow smithereens all over the place.”

To find out, we’ve got to track the usage of the phrase. In its earliest English uses, “smithereens" was often attributed to an Irish speaker, and used similarly to how it’s used today. Here’s a particularly delightful example from an 1887 issue of The Maryland Medical Journal, in which a surgeon named Sir Astley quizzes an Irish student on his surgical knowledge:

Asked Sir Astley, “What is a simple and what is a compound fracture?”

“A simple fracture is when the bone is broken, and a compound fracture is when it is all broke,” was the answer.

“What do you mean by all broke?” asked Sir Astley.

“I mean,” said the Irishman, “broke into smithereens, to be sure.”

Said Sir Astley, “I ventured to ask him what was ‘smithereens.’ He turned upon me with intense expression of sympathy upon his countenance—‘You don’t know what is smithereens? Then I give you up!’”

According to etymology blog The Word Detective, the word spread quickly over the next century, possibly due to its sound. In most cases, speakers use “blown to smithereens.”

The Word Detective posits that the word has a certain musical quality that makes it ideal for describing chaos—maybe that’s why it always describes some sort of explosion, not the results.

“It's easy to imagine, for example, a waiter dropping a tray of plates and the bits of china making a ringing "een" sound as they scatter across the floor and bounce off nearby diners (who might make "een" sounds themselves),” the blog reads.

We can also thank Looney Tunes for the phrase’s gradual addition to our shared lexicon. When angered, the character Yosemite Sam would often threaten to “blow ya to smithereenies,” and since Sam was fairly angry in every episode, his catchphrase spread.

Of course, that’s just a guess—we can get a little more scientific. Google’s Ngram searches millions of books, allowing users to easily track word usage over time. Here’s what it shows for “smithereens.”

google trends for smithereens

We can see that the phrase was extremely popular in the 1940s (when the world was, well, blowing things to smithereens). It’s currently experiencing a resurgence, so if you’re a fan of language, this is a great time to start incorporating “smithereens" into your everyday speech.