Nudge nudge, wink wink.
Dear Word Detective: I caught myself saying “If you catch my drift” in a conversation I was having a while back, and then began to ponder if even I was “catching my drift.” I was wondering if you could divine the origin of this phrase, which has been used as a cue to look for innuendo or intended meaning since I can remember. — Tom.
That’s a good question. I try to keep track of my own drift in conversations, but it’s not always easy. The other day, for instance, I had a conversation with our neighbor about an unruly honeysuckle bush that sits on the property line between us. I ambled away from our friendly chat believing that I had been perfectly accommodating and agreeable. But upon reporting the conversation to my consort, she explained to me that I had apparently implied to said neighbor that he should volunteer to be our unpaid full-time gardener, and perhaps live in a hut behind our garage, surviving on a diet of squirrels and birdseed. All that seems a bit of a stretch to me, but on the off chance that she’s right, I’m spending the rest of the summer indoors.
“Drift” in the sense you mention is a somewhat colloquial use of the word to mean “the meaning, implication or gist of speech or writing,” and, as you perceptively note, the phrase “if you catch my drift” is a cue for the reader or listener to not simply take what is said or written at face value, but to “read between the lines.” Although “drift” used in this sense sounds like modern slang, this usage actually dates back at least to the early 16th century (“Harde it is … to [perceive] the processe and dryfte of this treatyse,” 1526).
Behind “drift” is the venerable English verb “to drive,” which sprang from ancient Germanic roots and has dozens of meanings today, from the early literal sense of “forcing a living being to move” (e.g., “driving” cattle), to more figurative senses, such as “driving a hard bargain.” One such figurative use, which emerged in the 16th century and is still common, is “to proceed with a definite intention; to mean or intend,” often used in the context or argument or advocacy (“Their intent drives to the end of stirring up the people,” John Milton, 1649).
This sense of “to drive” is the key to “drift” meaning “intended meaning.” “Drift” as a noun is based on “to drive,” and in its basic sense means simply “the action of driving or being driven,” as a boat might exhibit a certain degree of “drift” from its charted course, or “that which is driven,” as in a “snow drift.” Such “drifts” are natural and unintentional, but “drift” can also mean “the aim or goal that one is driving at in speech or writing” (“The main drift and scope of these pamphlets … was to defame and disgrace the English Prelates,” Thomas Fuller, 1655).
This is the kind of “drift” that one “catches” or “gets.” It’s necessary to “catch” this sort of “drift” because by definition the actual meaning or aim of the speaker’s words is not plainly apparent, but usually hidden in a thicket of oblique implications. To pin down the period when “catch your drift” became popular is difficult, but “catch” in the sense of “perceive the meaning of something said” dates back at least to the mid-19th century, and “catch” meaning simply “to see or hear something in particular” was common in the 16th century.