Just call me Snakeyes.
Dear Word Detective: I read that you are a native or at least previous resident of New Jersey, as I am also. I was gone for around 10 years, from 1995 to 2005 and upon retuning, I’m hearing a word that just wasn’t part of the vernacular when I left. The word, “dicey,” is used here in NJ in the sense of things being a bit “touchy” or “critical” or something. But I was wondering if there’s an origin to this word as it applies now. My guess is it’s like dicing up a tomato — it gets sloppy and mushy, sort of like the situation it’s used in. — Bill Becker.
Yes, it’s true. I was born in Princeton, but I learned to walk early and left shortly thereafter. I also lived in a suburb in northern New Jersey for one ill-advised year in the late 1980s, surrounded by what were then called yuppies. I still break out in hives when I see Burberry plaid.
That’s an interesting theory you’ve come up with about “dicey” and dicing tomatoes, which does indeed make a nasty mess. Incidentally, I’ve found that if you leave them in the freezer overnight and then just drop them on the floor, you get nice little pieces without all that bother.
I received another question about “dicey,” meaning “risky or dangerous,” from a reader a few years ago but never got around to answering it (sorry, Bill P.), which is a shame because he included an interesting story he had heard about the word. “Dicey,” the story went, originated among Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots during World War II. When the weather at their home fields was too bad to permit landing when returning from a mission, they would fly north to an airfield called Dice, where the skies were almost always clear. Thus bad weather came to be known as “Dicey,” a term later expanded to describe anything risky.
Two bits of that story are true. “Dicey” did begin as RAF slang during WWII. And, as Bill P. discovered in his research, there is indeed a “Dice” airfield at Aberdeen, Scotland, evidently known for its clear weather.
But the roots of “dicey” lie, not in the clouds, but on the gambling tables (or the floor of an RAF hangar). “Dicey” comes from “dice,” the plural of “die,” the little spotted cubes of chance used in many games. A mission that was “dicey” to the RAF pilots was fraught with danger, and their safe return was as uncertain as a roll of the dice they often used to pass their time on the ground. This sense of both chance and danger has carried over to our modern use of “dicey” to mean “seriously risky,” often with overtones of disaster if the effort fails.