What's the meaning of the phrase 'Crinkum-crankum'?
A 'crinkum-crankum' thing is something full of twists and turns; something intricately or fancifully constructed, winding intricately and sinuously.
The convoluted drawings of M. C. Escher could be described as 'crinkum-crankum'.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Crinkum-crankum'?
The reduplicated expression crinkum-crankum is rarely used now but it the 17th century it was common in writings and in the street.
Actually, there are a group of similar-sounding expression that lead to 'crinkum-crankum'. I'll go through them in order:
The root word behind all these expression is crink. That referred to an intricate twist of thought or speech or a clever deception or sleight of hand. That dates from the early 16th century, as in this piece from the Tudor courtier Leonard Smyth's Letters, 1534:
He seith they ar better to marr a good & trew matter then to make it wth suche crinkes in the law.
The typical way that a reduplicated two-word pair is formed is by this recipe:
Take an existing word with a known meaning, or a variant of it.
Either, add a rhyming or alliterative word, or repeat the first word.
So, the word crink, meaning 'twisting/tricky', leads us to the two reduplicants 'cringle-crangle' and 'crinkle-crankle', which both emerged around the same time and are effectively the same term.
Found in the British publisher Humfrey Toy's The Supremacie of Christian Princes, 1573:
This argument is intricate, and full of many inversed cringle crangles, to shewe a face of deepe and subtill knowledge, beyonde the simple mans capacitie: whyche kynd of reasonyng, is more suspicious than to edifying.
This is found in the eminent linguist and translator John Florio's Italian/English dictionary A Worlde of Wordes, 1598, in which he defined the Italian word séno:
Séno, ... the turning or hollownes of a water-banke ... or fold in a garment ... a twinding or round circle in haire ... a crinkle crankle of any thing.
We eventually get to 'crickum-crankum'. This is clearly derived as an alternative or mispronounced version of the above - spelling was a very fluid affair in 17th century England.
It's found in a 1656 comic play - The Hectors. The authorship of the play is disputed but the OED attributes it to the writer Edmund Prestwich. 'Crinkum-crankum' is used in a scene where the protagonists exchange insults with each other..
If thy face be a Green Cheese, the Cheese-cloth was somewhat course. ... I, for it is all wrought crinckum, cranckum.
'Crinkum-crankum' is still used occasionally, as is 'crickle-crankle'. The expressions may now be rare but they lead to the more commonly used 'knick-knack' and 'gimcrack', so the DNA of 'crink' lives on.