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shameless pleading

Tick a Lock

Truth be told, that show made me want to live in New York City.

Dear Word Detective: While we watching a rerun (obviously) of “The Andy Griffith Show,” one of the characters used the phrase “tick a lock.” While its meaning is fairly clear, with the inclusion of the hand gesture imitating the use of a key to turn a lock, I was wondering where the term came from. — Brenda Chastain.

Well, there you go. This is why I don’t get anything done. I just spent a half-hour reading all the Wikipedia pages associated with that show and learned all sorts of interesting things I’ll forget later this afternoon. I wasn’t a huge fan of the show as a kid (liked Barney Fife, wanted to strangle Gomer Pyle), but I’m not surprised that reruns of it are enduringly popular. The denizens of Mayberry are so deeply rooted in America’s subconscious that when a White House official resigned in 2001 and derided his former colleagues as “Mayberry Machiavellis,” some people may have been unclear on just who Machiavelli was, but Mayberry was instantly understood as the archetypal American small town. (And yes, Niccolo Machiavelli, like Victor Frankenstein, is unfairly tarred, as an eponym, with the sins of his creation.)

There are, it’s safe to say, a lot of “ticks” in English. The oldest is the bloodsucking arachnid known as the “tick,” the modern form of the Old English “ticca,” which has close relatives in many other Germanic languages. Next up (dating from the 15th century) is “tick” meaning “pillow-case” or “mattress cover,” ultimately from the Latin “teka” and better known in the form “ticking,” meaning the sort of durable cloth from which such “ticks” were originally made. There’s also a “tick” that first appeared in the mid-17th century meaning “credit” or “trust,” most often in phrases such as “on tick” meaning “on credit” (“When he had no funds he went on tick,” Thackeray, 1848). That “tick” is probably just a shortening of “ticket” in the sense of “IOU.”

That brings us to the “tick” that appeared in the mid-15th century meaning “a light tap or pat” or, a bit later, in the 17th century, “a quick, light, clicking sound” of the sort made by a watch or clock. This “tick” has relatives in several other languages (e.g., Norwegian “tikke,” to touch lightly), and the whole family of “ticks” was almost certainly formed “echoically,” in imitation of the action or sound of a light, quick pat or touch.

This “tick,” as both a noun and a verb, went on to develop a dizzying range (I’m dizzy just writing this) of meanings both literal and figurative, from “tick” meaning “a single moment” (from the tick of a clock) to “mark next to an item on a list” (“to tick someone off” originally meant “to reject or dismiss,” probably from being crossed off a list).

One meaning of “tick” the verb that developed in the early 20th century was “to operate with a light, quick effort or action,” as one might “tick out” a message with a telegraph key, and this brings us back to Mayberry.  “Tick a lock,” judging by the entry for the phrase in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), was used a number of times by characters in the show, especially Andy’s Aunt Bee. The phrase was also a favorite of Archie Bunker in All in the Family, and it’s apparently still popular throughout the American South and South Midlands. DARE notes that the expression is usually accompanied by a gesture of turning a key in a lock, but the lock is a metaphorical one, a lock on your lips. “Tick a lock” (sometimes “tick-a-lock” or “tickalock”) means “to keep quiet” or “to keep a secret” (the equivalent of “zip it” or “put it in the vault” on Seinfeld). “Tick a lock” can thus be either a command (as Aunt Bee usually used it) or a promise not to tell a secret or say something unpleasant (“I’m Mr. Sunshine for the rest of the year, y’all. If I can’t say something good about a person or topic, I’ll just zip it. Tickalock, OK?” AR Times (Little Rock) 2006). “Tick a lock” is also used in some children’s games to declare a time out, claim immunity, or designate another player as being “in jail” and temporarily out of the game.

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