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shameless pleading

Dukes (put up your)

Your future in a fist.

Dear Word Detective:  Recently, on the way to a boxing class, my co-worker jokingly told me to “put up your dukes.”  We both immediately wondered where that expression comes from, and I thought, of course, of you.  Any insight? — Loren.

Boxing class, eh?  Is that a college course?  Things must have changed quite a bit.  When I was in school, we took Tear Gas Studies and Advanced Annoyance of Authority Figures.

My attitude towards boxing, I should note, was formed at an early age when I discovered that you needed another person to help you lace up the gloves.  I can’t quite explain why, but that really seemed to break the aura of ferocity one usually associates with the sport.  It’s like asking your mom to start your motorcycle for you.

“Put up your dukes” is, of course, the classic challenge to engage in a fist fight, whether bare-knuckle or boxing with padded gloves.  While there is no doubt that “put up your dukes” were serious “fighting words” when the phrase first became popular in the late 19th century, today proclaiming “put up your dukes” is regarded as either a joke or the mark of a comical buffoon (e.g., the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz or countless Bugs Bunny cartoons).  We still speak, however, of candidates  “duking it out” in election years.

The use of “dukes” as slang for “fists” seems to have arisen a bit earlier than “put up your dukes,” around 1859, and there are several theories as to the origin of this usage.  The most elaborate traces “dukes” to rhyming slang, in which the intended word is replaced by a phrase in which one word rhymes with it; one standard example is “china plate” meaning “mate.”  The phrase is then often shortened to the one non-rhyming word to further obscure the meaning (in this example, simply “china” as slang for “mate”).

According to this theory, “duke” is the remnant of the rhyming slang phrase “Duke of York” meaning “fork,” itself supposedly 19th century slang for “hand” because the fingers resemble the tines of a fork.  This may seem an impossibly convoluted genesis for a simple bit of slang, but it is not unprecedented in the world of rhyming slang.  A more serious objection to this theory is that while rhyming slang is popular in the UK and Australia, it has never gained much of a foothold here in the US, and the slang “dukes” definitely appears to be an American invention.  Of course, we may have picked it up from immigrants, but there aren’t many popular American slang terms that can be traced to rhyming slang.

A much simpler theory about “dukes,” and one I find more likely, is that it comes from the Romany, or Gypsy, word “dookin,” meaning “fortune telling.”  Since a staple of fortune telling is palmistry, it seems reasonable that “dook” was assumed, perhaps by non-Gypsy carnival workers, to mean simply “hand” and spread as slang from there, eventually changing its spelling to the more familiar “duke.”

4 comments to Dukes (put up your)

  • COREY

    I have always thought it came from the “Duke” John Wayne. He was always known for being able to fight in his movies. Just a thought.

  • Dave Hendricks

    The phrase “Put up your Dukes”, may have come from the age of Kings and Queens. As Kingdoms went through the land gathering taxes and many of the lower class revolted the idea of paying taxes and getting nothing for it. The kingdom’s would send Nobles and Knights, but Dukes would calm the pheseants and solve the issues. Thus, “Put up your Dukes” would settle the conflicts.

    Also, Kings would spar or gesture each other in high class conflict about each other including rumor’s and scandle. When it got to the point something had to be done, Kings would “Put up their Dukes” to resolve issues, real or unreal.

    For what it is worth, this is what I was told growing up.

  • MarkB

    It’s hard to imagine for me that American carnival workers of the 19th century would particularly care about Romany language to the point where they’d pick it up. Possible, but seems a major stretch. I’d file this one under ‘unknown.’

  • JSG

    Although impossible to disprove without solid proof of a rival theory, the rhyming slang explanation seems a bit wishful. Forks for fingers does NOT connect naturally to closed fists for boxing as one would expect for rhyming slang. Indeed, we’d expect the word fist or punch to have evolved into some colourful rhyming term in their own right instead. People don’t box with open fork-like fingers so it makes no sense.

    I always presumed it originated from the (French) word deux, as in “put up your two fists” similar to the idea of the duel as combat between two persons who duke it out. Each boxer uses two(deux) fists as weapons rather than bladed swords or a single pistol.

    The Romany word “dookin” also connects back to a hand or palm meaning instead of a fist and seems even more fanciful than the Cockney derivation. The provided backing for a Duke of York etymology is fine only as far as connecting to “forks” standing for fingers or hand but not fists in any real sense.

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