This is the latest installment in our weekly series The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi focuses on the meaning and significance of a unique word used in blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu is now available at Bluescentric.com!
A chinch is an insect known to farmers in the American South as a big pest. Chinches are black, with white wings folded on their backs in a diamond shape. They are tiny — about a fifth of an inch long. Chinch bugs destroy corn, wheat, and barley crops by inserting their slim beaks into the plants and sucking out the juices. They rarely bite or sting humans.
Chinches got their name from the Bantu word tshishi, which means any kind of small bug or insect. As the slave trade penetrated beyond the Senegambia region deeper into Africa after 1730, Bantu people were taken from their North Kongo and Angola homelands and enslaved in huge numbers. The majority of captured Bantu were brought to South Carolina to work the fields, where they became intimately acquainted with a pesky bug that destroyed crops. They called it tshishi, which in English became chinch or chinch-bug.
Some scholars argue that chinch is another word for bedbug, and that therefore a “chinchpad” is a rooming house or hotel infested with bedbugs. That theory is contradicted, though, by the lyrics Blind Lemon Jefferson sang in “Black Snake Moan”:
Oh, that must have been a bedbug, baby
A chinch can’t bite that hard.
An infestation of chinches gives off a stale, musty odor, which could be why the word chinchpad developed. Hard to say for sure!
“Black Snake Moan”- Blind Lemon Jefferson (Lemon Jefferson)
“Chinch Bug Blues”- Blind Lemon Jefferson
“New Huntsville Jail”- Joe Evans
Blind Lemon Jefferson’s only known photo, from the Paramount Records catalog, late 1920s. Courtesy Delta Haze Corporation photo archives, excerpted from The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu.
“Black Snake Moan” – Blind Lemon Jefferson
“Checking for Chinch Bugs”