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shameless pleading





Stand chickie

I’ll wait in the car.

Dear Word Detective: In reading Donald E. Westlake’s classic crime novel Good Behavior for the fifth time, I noticed a phrase that hadn’t caught my eye before — “stood chicky,” in a context that implies the individual in question was serving as a lookout. I haven’t found a clear definition of this phrase, although several other examples (some spelled “chickie”) pop up via search engine. Can you enlighten us on its origin? — Bob Armstrong.

Fifth time, eh? Maybe I should read it. I figure that if someone not overtly crazy (and obviously you’re not) reads something over and over again, it must be worth reading at least once. On the other hand, I once had a friend who was obsessed with Malcolm Lowry’s novel “Under the Volcano” and seemed to read it about every six months. I think you only have to read Under the Volcano once to know how weird that is.


Cheese consutant

I hadn’t run across “stand chicky” before I read your question, but it seemed likely to me that the phrase probably harbors a chicken somewhere in its family tree. After all, English has dozens of phrases and metaphors honoring our little feathered pals. Unfortunately, our linguistic tributes to what the Oxford English Dictionary calls “the domestic fowl” are rarely complimentary. As I noted about a year ago while discussing “chicken pox,” when we notice the less attractive aspects of our own nature, we pin it all on the poor chicken, the Rodney Dangerfield of the animal world. We call those without courage “chicken-hearted,” “chicken-livered,” or just plain “chicken.” We deride small amounts of money as “chicken feed” and when we call someone a “chickenhead,” we mean “dolt.”

More to the point of your question, “chick” and “chickie” have long been used as demeaning slang terms for young women and girls. Assuming that acting as the lookout is the least confrontational role in a criminal gang pulling some sort of “job,” it seems possible that “standing chickie” might be a reference to this role usually being given to female members of the group, perhaps a mocking jibe at men assigned lookout duty. Makes perfect sense to me.

Fortunately, my little theory is all wet, and the truth is far more interesting. To “lay” or “play” or “stand chickie” has meant “to act as lookout” since at least the 1930s in the US, and comes from the use of the cry of “Chickie!” as a warning of the approach of the police or similar authorities (“Chickee the cop, behin’ de rock,” Roth, Call It Sleep, 1934). The word “chickie” in this use is a variant of the equivalent cry “chiggers!”, which is itself a modification of “jiggers,” which dates back to at least the 1890s. “Jiggers!” was used as a cry to warn of approaching authority, but it was also an all-purpose interjection to express surprise or shock, and may have begun as a euphemism for “Jesus.” Interestingly, the somewhat older (early 1800s) underworld expression “cheese!” or “cheese it!”, also meaning “Beat it, here come the cops,” sounds as if it too might have begun as a euphemistic alternative to “Jesus.”

9 comments to Stand chickie

  • Thaddeus Cowan

    The origin of “hickory, dickory, dock” from the nursery rhyme.

    An old and rustic way of counting went:
    wan, twan, tethera, methera, pimp
    sethera, lethera, bovera, dovera, dick
    wanadick, twanadick…

    From which we get “hickory, dickory, dock.”
    (See Conway, J. and Guy, R, 1996, “The Book of Numbers” p.2 for a complete explanation.

  • Messman

    You forgot to mention “The jig is up!”

  • dcase

    I work in the prison system in Texas where offenders still “run jiggers” or watch for approaching authority.

  • Brooklyn in da House

    In 1960’s Brooklyn, one kid would “keep chickie” while the other kids went into the lobby to share a cigarette.

    In the film version of the Blackboard Jungle, the delinquents are smoking in the bathroom. When the teacher comes in, one says “Chickie”.

    I didn’t know this was specialized slang until I said “Chickie” to co-workers and they looked at me like I was nuts.

  • Gigi

    Phrase “chickee the cop” predates 1930. My mother born in 1917 in Brooklyn, N.Y. recounts that at age 8 or 9 she and other little ones often helped the older boys who would be pitching pennies in the alley (considered illegal gambling at the time). My Mom and others would be the look-out for the older kids, warning “chickee the cop” whenever a policeman was near. However, unbeknownst to the older kids, my Mother or her friends would “snitch” to the cop and then feign a sincere warning. Frequently after the boys “got busted” the patrol officer would divide up the coins and give them to my Mom and her little friends.

  • Kaleberg

    I’ve only heard “stand chickie” once. My father used it when he needed to go and there was only a woman’s room available. He wanted me to keep any woman from entering while he was in there. I’m pretty sure it was slang from his college days, the 1930s. I assumed “chickie” referred to watching out for “chicks”, women, but it sounds like it was a more general way of saying “stand guard”.

  • Barbara

    I worked in a reformatory in Warwick, NY in 1968. The kids were from NYC and often talked about “keeping chickie.” It meant being on the lookout.

  • Jimmy

    Growing up in NYC in the late fifties early sixties “playing chickie” was to be a lookout for the cops. All of my friends used it also… so it was a common term passed down thru generations. I’ve lived in many places in the US and the only place I’ve ever heard it used was NYC.

  • Tim

    My Dad grew up in South Boston in the 1920s, 30s and early 40s. He used to say “Chiggy the cops” in a joking way whenever he saw a police car. He may have been saying “chickie” and I misheard. Anyway, he explained that he and his friends in Southie would say it as a warning that the cops were near.

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