We might expect ‘as thick as thieves’ to be a variant of the other commonly used ‘thick’ simile ‘as thick as two short planks’. The fact that the former expression originated as ‘as thick as two thieves’ gives more weight to that expectation.
As you may have guessed from that lead in, the two phrases are entirely unconnected. The short planks are thick in the ‘stupid’ sense of the word, whereas thieves aren’t especially stupid but are conspiratorial and that’s the meaning of ‘ thick’ in ‘as thick as thieves’.
‘Thick’ was first used to mean ‘closely allied with’ in the 18th century, as in this example from Richard Twining’s memoir Selected Papers of the Twining Family, 1781:
Mr. Pacchicrotti was at Spa. He and I were quite ‘thick.’ We rode together frequently. He drank tea with me.
Like all ‘as X as Y’ similes, ‘as thick as thieves’ depends on Y (thieves) being thought of as archetypally X (thick). The thieves had some competition. Earlier versions were ‘as thick as’… ‘inkle weavers’, ‘peas in a shell’ and ‘three in a bed’, all of which were examples of things that were especially intimate (inkle-weavers sat at looms that were close together).
These variants have now pretty much disappeared, leaving the way clear for ‘as thick as thieves’.
The association of thieves with conspiratorial and secretive language was well established in England in the 18th century. Many of those on the fringes of society, for example poachers, homosexuals, street hawkers and thieves, used secret words and phrases to converse furtively amongst themselves.
Backslang was one example of this, the best known survival of backslang being ‘yob’ for ‘boy’. Several lexicographers had published dictionaries used by those on the wrong side of the law, notably the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, 1698.
The ‘canting crew’ were the various vagabonds and coney-catchers (conmen) that inhabited the streets of British cities. The dictionary explained how to decipher the language of “the tribes of gypsies, beggars, thieves, cheats etc.”, so that people could “secure their money and preserve their lives”.
Given that thieves were established as being ‘thick’ by the late 17th century it is surprising that ‘as thick as thieves’ didn’t emerge until a century or so later. The records of the Old Bailey, which list transcripts of cases held there since 1674 and which might be just the place to find this phrase, don’t list it until 1874.
The first example that I can find of it in print is from the English newspaper The Morning Chronicle, in a letter dated March 1827, published in February 1828:
Bill Morris and me are as thick as two thieves.
So there you have it; proverbially at least, planks are stupid but thieves (unless you include bankers) aren’t.
Meaning: Dressed flamboyantly or smartly.
Nine is the most troublesome number in etymology. There are several phrases of uncertain parentage that include the word.
Examples are, cloud nine, nine days’ wonder and the infamous whole nine yards. We can add ‘dressed to the nines’ to that list.
Dressed to the nines
The most frequently heard attempts to explain the phrase’s derivation involve associating the number nine with clothing in some way.
One theory has it that tailors used nine yards of material to make a suit (or, according to some authors, a shirt).
The more material you had the more kudos you accrued, although nine yards seems generous even for a fop.
Another commonly repeated explanation comes from the exquisitely smart uniforms of the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot, which was raised in 1824.
The problem with these explanations is that they come with no evidence to support them, apart from a reference to the number nine (or 99, which seems to be stretching the cloth rather thinly).
The regiment was in business in the early 19th century, which is at least the right sort of date for a phrase that became widely used in the middle of that century.
The first example of the use of the phrase that I can find in print is in Samuel Fallows’ The Progressive Dictionary of the English Language, 1835.
In his entry for the phrase ‘to the nines’ Fallows gives the example ‘dressed up to the nines’ and suggests that it “may perhaps” be derived from ‘to thine eynes’ – to the eyes.
Not bad as a hypothesis, but without any evidence (and I can find none) ‘may perhaps’ is as far as we can go with that.
What counts against the above explanations, and indeed against any of the supposed explanations that attempt to link the number nine to some property of clothing, is the prior use of the shorter phrase ‘to the nine’ or ‘to the nines’, which was used to indicate perfection, the highest standards.
Read more via Dressed to the nines.
“A Breakfast Dish made with oats, very hot water, salt and stirred becoming a sticky mess generally consumed by the lower classes in England and in Australia.” OR
“A prison sentence in a British Prison, e.g.”doing your porridge”. Immortalised in the wonderful British TV Comedy “Porridge” starring Ronnie Barker. OR
“In South Australia down at The Old Guv on King William Road, to be porridged meant you had been bollocked by the Boss (told off).
Once the Comps found out you had been porridged they would let YOU know that THEY knew in one way or another about your serve of “porridge”.
John Buckby would sing the old Elvis song “All Shook Up” and change the words to “All Stirred Up” right in front of you. Some would whistle the song.
Others would ask, “What did you have for Breakfast?” “Some Porridge Arsehole?”
And some would simply say, “Serves you fuckin’ right! ” They were the suckholes.
It was there in the first ever glossary of slang, the collection of criminal jargon published c.1532, and it’s still going strong.
Booze: Alcoholic drink, and as a verb, to drink.
It came from Dutch buizen, to drink to excess (and beyond that buise, a large drinking vessel) and the first examples were spelt bouse.
Over the centuries it spread its wings.