Mind your language

The ding-dong over being ‘pinged’

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

‘Ping, ping, ping went the bell,’ sang my husband, making his eyes wide and jigging in his best imitation of Judy Garland, ‘Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings.’ The effect was horrific. And ‘The Trolley Song’ doesn’t go ‘Ping, ping, ping’ but ‘Ding, ding, ding’.

Everything else has been pinging, though. ‘Missing a holiday because you’ve been pinged can be a big disappointment,’ remarked the Daily Mirror, solicitously. The pinging in question is that of the NHS Test and Trace phone app.

Incidentally, the government has made a breakthrough in moral philosophy during this pandemic, distinguishing between shouldand must. ‘If the app tells you to self-isolate, then you should self-isolate,’ said the late health secretary. ‘But if an NHS Test and Trace contact tracer tells you, then you must by law.’ Must in this language is law; shouldis the kind of must that is not the law, such as that you should be faithful to your wife.

Ping is not an ancient word and derives from the interjection imitative of the sound of a bullet. ‘The sharp ping of the Minié was sure to follow any imprudent exposure,’ wrote the Timescorrespondent from the Crimea in 1855, referring to a new kind of rifle bullet.

A parallel word is pink, a tinkling dripping sound. It was adopted by motorists for a symptom of internal combustion malfunction and Kipling, already happy to use ping of a bicycle bell, wrote lines in 1904 on a dying chauffeur, in parody of Adam Lindsay Gordon, the poet of Australia: ‘That cursed left-hand cylinder the doctors call my heart / Is pinking past redemption — I am done!’

In the second world war, Asdic, the echo-sounder for finding submarines, found the word handy for its audible alert. I suppose the sound supplied on some phones accounts for phrases such as ‘I’ll ping you an email’.

No doubt there is an element of pinging in ping-pong, or whiff-whaff as the Prime Minister likes to call it after an unsuccessful patented version from 1900. It took the brilliant word detective Michael Quinion in his World Wide Words to point out that the correct spelling is whiff-waff. A well-pinged shot.

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