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.”