Be right back! [Door slams; sound of car receding into distance.]
Dear Word Detective: I was recently reading a folk history, “Forgotten Towns of South Jersey,” in which the author refers to a 19th century preacher in his “long-tailed coat and dicer.” A coat I understand, but what is a “dicer?” An internet search turns up one reference, a turn-of-the-last-century newspaper feature about the discomfort of formal wear, again referring to the mysterious “coat and dicer.” Thinking about “dicer” made me realize how odd the whole “die-dice” group of words is. There is the verb “die,” to cease to live; the nouns “die,” the metal cutting tool (plural “dies”), and the gambling cube (plural “dice”(!)), the verb “dice,” to cut into cubes (which resemble dice). I hope you can define “dicer” and unravel the rest of the “die/dice” mess. O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to die-sieve (sorry, couldn’t stop myself). — Sam Glasscock.
Uh huh, OK, no problemo. Before we begin, however, I think I’ll warm up with something a bit simpler and less stressful, like giving our cats a bath. All at once. Seriously, that’s seventeen, maybe forty-six questions you have there, and this is the Three Items or Fewer aisle. So I’ll give it a shot, but don’t blame me if the ice cream ends up in the dog food bag.
Perhaps it’s best to begin at the end, so to speak. The verb “to die,” meaning to join the choir invisible, pine for the fjords, or just plain “croak,” appeared in the 12th century, probably borrowed from the Old Norse “deyja” (to die), which came from an ancient Germanic root, the same one that gave us “dead” and “death.” English had words for “die” before then, of course, but we adopted “die” when they were abandoned in favor of euphemisms (although those old “die” words live on in our modern “starve,” “swelter” and “quell”).
The “die” used in games of chance (plural “dice”) and the “die” meaning “metal block used to cut or stamp” (plural “dies”) are actually the same word, rooted in the Latin verb “dare,” meaning “to give,” but also “to play.” We adapted “die,” in the 14th century, from the Old French “de,” the plural of which was “dez,” which became our weird plural for the spotted cubes, “dice.” The verb “to dice,” to cut into small cubes, did indeed come, also in the 14th century, from this gambling sort of “dice.” The machine-shop sense of “die” arose later, in the 17th century, and took the more conventional English plural form “dies.” This “die” reflects the “give” sense of the Latin verb, as the die gives a shape to the material stamped or cut.
And now, the envelope please. A “dicer” is a man’s hat, made of stiff silk or felt, not as tall as a top hat, but of similar shape (though the term is sometimes also applied to a derby). “Dicers” were popular in the 19th century, and the term is still used as slang for any sort of hat with a brim, including baseball caps.
During the same period, “dicer” was also slang for a gambler specializing in games involving dice. It’s possible that “dicer” as the name for hat owes something to its popularity among gamblers, but several sources I found indicate that the name comes from the hat’s perceived similarity in shape to the sort of small felt-lined cup used to shake the dice in games of chance. It’s also possible that such a stiff, deep hat made an excellent “dice cup” in a pinch.