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.
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.
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.
We find the boozer (both pub and person), the booze artist, -gob, -head, -freak, -hound,-hoister, -rooster, -shunter and -stupe, all drunkards.
There are the pubs, saloons and bars – the booze barn, -bazaar, -casa, -crib, -joint, -mill, -parlour, -factory, -foundry and -emporium.
Across the mahogany (the bar counter) stands the booze clerk, -fencer or -pusher. If we hit the booze too heavily, we get a booze belly, and maybe a trip on the booze bus, Australia’s mobile breath-tester.
I remember the days when either a letterpress printer or binder would stride up to me and ask the naive apprentice comp. “Could you set a few lines for us mate.”
I do because I was that naive apprentice who was “A Nice Lad who is as thick as two short planks.”
But my pommy tradesman in charge was quicker than most and I guess after some years down the track “a little bit bent.”
And, he never told me he got paid for it!
He would get me to design and set the type on the Ludlow typecaster by pissing in my pocket by saying “you are a master of design Rod”.
And I would do it, time and time again. I just didn’t think that my tradesman would lie to me.
There was one printer in particular who would wander into the comp. room speak to my tradesman and then I’d be setting wedding invites for the next hour or so.
Lots of wedding invites.
He started up a small backyard print shop specialising in wedding stationery using hot metal supplied by me (unlawfully but innocently) and that operation turned into a fairly large printing office out on the Main North Eastern Road.
The next time I saw him I was a Printing Union Organiser and as an boss he was a “deadset arsehole“.
The word nerd was first used in the 1950 Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo, in which a nerd was one one of the many oddly named creatures in the titular zoo. According to Ben Zimmer of Vocabulary.com, a 1951 Newsweek article mentioned it as one of the new terms being used by teenagers.
It seems unlikely for teens to have latched on to a single proper noun in a Dr. Seuss book so quickly, but there is no recorded source of the word being used previously.
It’s possible that it was based on the 1940s slang word “nert,” which referred to a stupid or crazy person.
It’s certainly easy to see how teens of the 1950s might co-opt the adults’ term for morons and use it to mean “squares” and people who didn’t understand their culture.
Geek is actually an old English word meaning freak, imported via the German word “geck,” which could also mean fool.
Circuses in 18th century Austro-Hungary used to advertise their “geeks” as their weirdest human attractions, and the word was often used to refer specifically to those whose act consisted specifically of biting the heads off of live animals.
The word had its resurgence when it was used in the popular 1941 book Nightmare Alley and its equally popular movie adaptation, to refer to such.
Most etymologists think that dork is an alteration of the word dick, perhaps coming out of the Midwest, and thus originally meant penis, too.
It was certainly used to mean a penis in the 1961 novel Valhalla, although it was spelled “dorque”; a 1964 article in American Speech confirmed its phallic meaning and spelled the word as “dork.”
It was also used by Charles Schmid, a serial killer known as “The Pied Piper of Tuscon,” who was interviewed in the (then obviously extremely prevalent) Life magazine, in which he was quoted saying “I didn’t have any clothes and I had short hair and looked like a dork.
Girls wouldn’t go out with me.” Schmid almost certainly meant “penis” when he said “dork,” but as the word caught on in pop culture it more commonly came to mean people who look uncool and/or odd.