In Brief

As Mulligan affirms soon after calling down the stairs for "Kinch," he is the source of this nickname for Stephen: “my name for you is the best: Kinch, the knife-blade.” Ellmann says that Oliver Gogarty gave the name to Joyce and remarks that it imitated “the cutting sound of a knife” (131). This seems pretty obscure, but Mulligan's explanation certainly justifies hearing some sort of association with knives in the word. Other meanings of "kinch" may be worth exploring, not as alternatives but as complements.

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Mulligan uses his nickname for Stephen relentlessly: eighteen times in Telemachus (to only six or seven instances of calling him "Dedalus"), another five in Scylla and Charybdis, and once in Oxen of the Sun. Stephen appears to have accepted the sobriquet willingly enough. When he is playing whimsically with the thought of navelcords in Proteus he thinks, "Hello. Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville," and at the end of the chapter he mocks himself as "Toothless Kinch, the superman." Paying Bella Cohen in the brothel, he generously includes Lynch and Bloom: "We are all in the same sweepstake, Kinch and Lynch."

If Kinch primarily suggests the sharpness of a blade, that association coheres with the many knife images in Telemachus that paint the relationship between Mulligan and Stephen as hostile and potentially violent: Mulligan’s razor; the knife on which, “impaled,” he thrusts slices of bread toward Stephen and Haines; the doctor's “lancet” and the writer's “cold steelpen." One effect of all these sharpened blades is to liken the Martello fortification to Elsinore castle, where hiding behind an arras or accepting a fencing invitation can prove fatal, and to the palace of Ithaca, where a host of suitors is slaughtered to the last man and the floors run ankle-deep in blood.

But there may be other associations lurking within the word. In a personal communication, Senan Molony proposes considering the expression "kinchin lay," which refers to stealing money from children. In Dickens' Oliver Twist, Noah asks Fagin to recommend a risk-free form of stealing and rejects his idea of snatching bags and parcels from old ladies (too noisy, may scratch). Fagin thinks some more and suggests the kinchin lay: "'The kinchins, my dear,' said Fagin, 'is the young children that's sent on errands by their mothers, with sixpences and shillings; and the lay is just to take their money away—they've always got it ready in their hands—then knock 'em into the kennel, and walk off very slow, as if there were nothing else the matter but a child fallen down and hurt itself. Ha! ha! ha!'"
If this expression has figured in Mulligan's creative process, his nickname implies that Stephen is not only a sharp-witted writer with a penchant for literary assassination, but also a sponger who supports himself by lifting money off of easy marks. And that too would fit the relationship of the two young men. Stephen has borrowed money and goods lavishly from Mulligan, as from various other acquaintances, and Mulligan shames him for eating all of the food that he has provided at no expense—a role that allies him with Joyce's mother, who sent postal orders whenever she could to relieve the son who was going days at a time without food in Paris. Eumaeus finds one more solicitous person, Bloom, offering food to this young man who says that he hasn't eaten for two days.

Mulligan mentions the knife association, Molony observes, just after remarking that Haines is "Bursting with money and indigestion," a fact which may prompt his reflection that Stephen is the intellectual equal of the Oxfordian but lacks his financial means and should go to Haines and "touch him for a guinea." This action of teasing out money, he notes, is not unrelated to knife-blades, because in Aeolus Stephen imagines the two old virgins from the Liberties putting one to similar use: "They save up three and tenpence in a red tin letterbox moneybox. They shake out the threepenny bits and a sixpence and coax out the pennies with the blade of a knife. Two and three in silver and one and seven in coppers." In fact, Mulligan seems to associate cadging money with a whole range of cutlery: "We must go to Athens. Will you come if I can get the aunt to fork out twenty quid?" This is all fantastically associative, but perhaps not beyond the reach of what Frank O'Connor memorably called Joyce's "associative mania."

John Hunt 2020
Spear-pointed knife-blade, photographed by Mendaliv in 2007.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Watercolor illustration of Fagin ca. 1889 by "Kyd." Source: Wikimedia Commons.