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shameless pleading

Trick/Shift

I can’t work the lobster shift ’cause I’m allergic.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of calling a shift of work a “trick”? I grew up in a railroad town and always heard “trick,” but never heard a reason why we called them that. — Rich Hileman.

That’s an interesting question. Actually it’s two interesting questions, because you defined “trick” in terms of being synonymous with “shift,” another somewhat odd term for a period of time someone is scheduled to work. I remember that the first time I ever heard “shift” used in that sense I was quite young, and assumed that it had something to do with the gearshift on a car, perhaps in reference to driving to work. This was, I should add, at a time when automatic transmissions were not the default on cars. I actually learned to drive on a 1968 Pontiac GTO with a four-speed transmission. I had no idea at the time that I was driving what would eventually be considered the quintessential American “muscle car.” I was just trying to avoid trees and crossing guards, not an easy task as I was learning on icy roads in the dead of a New England winter.

“Shift” first appeared as a verb in Old English (as “sciftan”) from Germanic roots with the basic sense of “to divide” or “to arrange.” In English the verb “to shift” originally meant “to put in order; to arrange,” but also “to apportion; to divide up.” It wasn’t until the 14th century that “to shift” developed the meanings “to change” or “to move” that underlie most senses of the verb we use today. As a noun appearing in the 15th century, “shift” carried the sense of “a movement to do something; a beginning” as well as that of “a share; an assigned portion.” This noun “shift” went of to acquire a broad range of meanings, from “a clever artifice” to “a change,” with dozens of sub-senses. One was “shift” meaning “initiative” or “gumption,” the lack of which leads to a person being called “shiftless.” Another was “a change of clothes,” which gave us the kind of formless dress called a “shift,” originally a garment both men and women would  put on after changing out of something a bit fancier.

In the 18th century, “shift” in this “change” sense came to be used to mean each of the successive crops rotated by farmers to maintain their land (corn one year, then “shift” to wheat the next, etc.), and that “shift” was soon also used to mean a change of horses or of workmen at a task. By the early 19th century, “shift” had come into general use in its modern meaning of “the period of time a person is scheduled to work.” So the “shift” you work is actually named for the fact that the task is “shifted” to you from the worker who preceded you.

“Trick” is a little bit trickier. The noun “trick” first appeared in the 15th century, from the Late Latin “tricari,” meaning “to deceive; to shuffle,” and pretty much from day one meant “a deceit, swindle or prank” (“If any one plays their tricks upon me, they shall pay for their fun,” 1796). “Trick” did, however, develop a remarkable number of other senses. In the 16th century, “trick” was used to mean “a particular habit, quality or custom,” usually one frowned upon by society. This sense is most often heard today in speaking of someone who is “up to his old tricks,” i.e., misbehaving in a personally characteristic manner.

“Trick” was also used in a related sense to mean simply “a pattern of expression or behavior” as in a style of dress or personal habits (“He detected … even the trick of his walk,” Bulwer-Lytton, 1846) . This broad sense of “trick” meaning “something one does routinely” produced, in the mid-17th century, the use of “trick” as naval slang for “the period a man is assigned to duty at the helm of a ship.” And that “time at the helm” sense eventually gave us “trick” in the more general sense of a “shift” at any job. This “trick” also expanded, in the 1930s, to serve as underworld slang for a sentence served in prison (“After serving a few tricks in the penitentiary they might turn State’s evidence,” 1939).

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