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Words, Feb. 5 

I recently saw the restaurant chain McDonald's referred to as the “kingpin” of the hamburger trade. Is this proper usage? I thought a “kingpin” was an individual of great power and influence, not a giant corporation. – Hardleigh DeCase

Random House says that a kingpin (informally) is “the person of chief importance in a corporation, movement, undertaking, etc.,” which would suggest that Mr. DeCase is correct. But RH also says that a kingpin can be (informally) “the chief element of any system, plan, or the like.” Mightn't McDonald's be considered the kingpin of a plan to cover the earth with hamburgers? It's also possible that the writer who called McDonald's a kingpin is one of those bold pathfinders who discover new meanings, and enrich the language by daring to write outside the lines. I wouldn't be quick to condemn such a one.

In bowling, the kingpin is the headpin, the one in front, nearest the bowler. An important pin, as pins go. The informal uses of kingpin were derived from this, apparently.

I checked The Word Detective for additional information on kingpin, but the word wasn't in the Tec's archives. A rare disappointment; he has a lot of words in stock. Near where kingpin would have been, for example, was a learned discussion of King's X. Reading one Word Detective entry is like eating one peanut – you can't stop there.

I subscribe to The Word Detective on-line and I recommend it to anyone who's interested in words and can scrape a few bucks together in these troubled times. A one-year subscription is $15. All of The Word Detective's work is eventually posted on the Internet for free, if you want to wait (if you do, some of the words may be worn out before you get to them), but he can't go on detecting for free forever. He himself speaks of his shock in learning that “it is perfectly possible to get semi-famous in the USA and not get rich. Not even a little. Not even pay-the-mortgage-on-time rich, or go-on-a-vacation-nowhere-near-where-your-relatives-live rich.” He's informative, amusing and needy, and he's at word-detective.com. Evidently he loves cats, but we all have our foibles.  

 

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