Word of the Month: Smithereens


David Zapatka

While watching an action movie recently, I heard a character say, “We’ll blow them to smithereens!” I immediately thought I hadn’t heard that word in a long time. Seems like it was popular when I was a kid but who still uses that word? My next thought was, “Where is ‘Smithereens’ anyway or what is ‘smithereens?’” Finally, I wondered, “Can there be one ‘smithereen?’” This prompted this month’s WOTM, smithereens.

Smithereens – smith-er-eens | ˌsmi-t͟hə-ˈrēnz plural, noun. Tiny bits and pieces; shattered fragments. The house was blown to smithereens by the explosion. “Smithereens” is a word that is almost always rendered in the plural form and is only seen in the singular form, smithereen, when used for comic effect.

First known use – 1798. Origin and etymology – from Irish Gaelic smidirīn, from diminutive of smiodar, small fragment. The suffix -een was tacked on as an additional diminutive. “Smithereens” appeared with the variant spellings smiddereens and shivereens about the same time. Today, only the spelling smithereens has survived. Its most popular use was between 1944 and 1963 explaining why I recalled it in my youth. Its use has declined over the past 40 years.

Examples of smithereens used in a sentence:

A security drill saw mannequins blown to smithereens in a frightening city centre anti-terrorism exercise – The Mirror

When Russian warplanes swooped down on a United Nations convoy trying to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians near Aleppo last week, they did not just blow to smithereens 20 innocent people and desperately needed supplies – they also demolished the already-tattered shards of United States policy in Syria – The National

Remember Yosemite Sam, the archenemy of Bugs Bunny? He was fond of saying “Varmint, I’m gonna blow you to smithereens!” Warner Brothers’ Stage Door Cartoon debuted Yosemite Sam making this threat to Bugs Bunny December 16, 1944. This cartoon became a staple in American cartoon fabric and can still be seen on your favorite cartoon channels today. That’s likely where I was introduced to “smithereens” and why I remember it from my youth.

So is there such a thing as a smithereen? Yes! It is exactly what you likely thought it was. A “smithereen” is simply a single very tiny piece or fragment of something. “Hey, look at that smithereen in the parking lot.” No, you have probably never heard something like this said since no one uses this word in singular form.

Did you know there is an American rock band named The Smithereens? I didn’t. The band was formed in 1980 in New Jersey. They’re still alive and well, performing 39 years later. There’s also a book titled To Smithereens. The heroine is a witty free-spirited street-girl sidelined into the sleazy denizen of amateur female wrestling by a dreamy arts columnist named Paul.

Ever see anything blown to smithereens or remember Yosemite Sam’s famous threat? Please submit your experiences, any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected]