Hickey bar

That thing you use.

Dear Word Detective: There are many wonderful and mysterious names for tools in every trade, and ironworking is no exception. A long-handled device used for bending rebar is known as a “Hickey bar” (or “Hicky,” or “Hickie,” depending on who’s doing the writing). Try as I might to get to the bottom of the name’s origin I have been stymied. Can you gain any traction on it? And, if you’re in the mood for a two-fer, hold forth on the origin of “spud” (as in an ironworker’s spud wrench). — Richard Meltzer, Haverhill, Mass.


Not a clue.

That’s a wonderful and mysterious question. I haven’t even started to attempt an answer, and I’ve already learned something. I’ve been wondering for years exactly where the term “rebar” (the steel bars embedded in concrete to strengthen a structure) came from. Unfortunately, I had never wondered about “rebar” while I was anywhere near my desk, and inevitably forgot to look it up when I was. But it turns out to be a blend, a “portmanteau” word, formed from “reinforcing” and “bar.” “Portmanteau” is, by the way, a very old word for “suitcase,” and the term “portmanteau word” was coined by Lewis Carroll in Alice Through the Looking Glass in 1871 (“Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’ … You see it’s like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word”). “Motel,” a blend of “motor” and “hotel,” is another portmanteau word.

As for “hickey,” we have good news and we have bad news. The good (or at least interesting) news is that the first occurrence in print for “hickey” in any sense is from 1909, when it was specifically defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a device for bending a conduit, consisting of an iron pipe used as a handle fitted at one end with a tee through which the conduit is passed,” which sounds a lot like your “hickey bar.” The term “hickey” has subsequently been applied to a variety of tools, gizmos, doodads and even flaws in various materials, as well as being the well-known teenage term for the mark left by a “love bite.”

Unfortunately, the bad news is that there doesn’t seem to be any particularly neat story associated with the origin of “hickey.” The word is almost certainly what linguists call a “fanciful coinage,” a word made up for something that lacks a proper name when people get tired of calling the thing “that thing.”

“Gizmo,” “dingus” and “doodad” are similar inventions. In fact, if you blend “doodad” with “hickey,” you get “doohickey,” yet another name for a “whatsis,” in this case dating to 1914.

Although we usually encounter “spud” as another word for “potato,” it originally, in the 15th century, meant a kind of short knife or, later on, a gardening implement (used, among other things, to dig up potatoes, which themselves eventually became known as “spuds”). My understanding is that a “spud wrench,” at least in the construction field, is a wrench with a narrow, elongated handle which is used to line up holes in beams, etc., through which bolts are to be put (and presumably then tightened with the head of the wrench). The origins of the word “spud” itself are uncertain, but it may be derived from a Scandinavian root meaning “spear.” If true, that would, given the long, narrow handle of a “spud wrench,” explain how the tool got its name.

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