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Dear Word Detective:  Close to a half century ago, I had a summer job with my local municipality, Toronto, Canada.  City garbage collectors sometimes found valuables in trash cans (anything from returnable bottles to fixable appliances) and stowed them away until the day’s end when they were furtively taken home. The common word for these “perks” of the job sounded like “polikens,” though the second vowel may have been “a” and the third “i” (I never saw it written).  My best guess is that it may derive from the demeaning terms for a person from Poland, (Archie Bunker’s famous “polack”) and imply that Polish people are “garbage pickers,” but that is just a guess.  As I reach retirement age (and my “nest egg” shrinks in value), I may return to this sort of treasure hunt (a.k.a. “dumpster diving”) in the hope of supplementing my pension.  It is, after all, more adventuresome and possibly more lucrative than saying, “Welcome to Wal-Mart.” — Howard A. Doughty.

That’s a good question, but I have one of my own.  Did you, in your tenure as an Urban Sanitation Engineer, engage in the stereotypical garbage collector tradition of affixing a teddy bear to the front of your truck?  What’s up with that?  I worked in a paper recycling warehouse for a couple of years back in the 1970s, and we hung all sorts of inappropriate “found objects”  (stuffed animals, shoes, etc.) from our baling machine and forklifts, but I never really understood why we did it.  Some primal attempt to distance ourselves from the job, I guess.

We also found a variety of things in the trucks of waste paper that we dealt with, but we didn’t have a special name for the rare treasure we came across, although I’m not surprised that you did.  Especially if the item is not supposed to be in your possession, it’s handy to have another name for it besides “that perfectly good TV we found.”

I had never encountered the term “polikens” before, so I went looking in my usual sources.  And I looked, and looked.  Then I looked in my unusual sources.  Then I began Googling under every possible spelling.  I eventually began to seriously consider the possibility that “polikens” was some weird form of “palichnology,” also known as “paleoichnology,” the study of fossil footprints.  Did you have any paleontology grad students in your crew?  Probably not.

So I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to your question.  Your theory tying the word to the derogatory term “Polack” applied to people of Polish ancestry is certainly possible, and may, depressingly, be the answer.  I hope not, because it would be much more fun if it “polikens” had an interesting (and inoffensive) origin all its own.

So for the time being, the best I can do is to “open source” this question and appeal to my readers.  If anyone out there has ever heard the term “polikens” in the sense of “something valuable found” or “perk or side benefit of a job,” please drop me a line via the question form at www.word-detective.com.  This approach has worked before, and if I learn anything about “polikens,” I’ll definitely pass it along.

2 comments on this post.
  1. Simon:

    It seems likely to me that this is a corruption of “pot lickings”, used to refer to the small bits of food left over after preparation or serving of a dish. In other words, the stuff you feed the dog. It fits that same sense of salvaging something otherwise discarded.

  2. admin:

    And it seems entirely possible that you’re right. It certainly does fit the sense of “polikens.” I doubt that we’ll ever be able to prove it’s the source, but it really strikes me as likely.

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