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Drift (catch my)

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.


But no porcupine ever called me Guv’nor.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m wondering about the word “urchin.”  What exactly is the relationship between kids on the streets and spiny sea-bottom creatures that allows them to share the same name? — Alyson.

That’s a good question.  After all, the sort of grimy-but-endearing “urchins” that populate Dickens novels and Sherlock Holmes stories were not known for their close acquaintance with water, especially in bathtubs, and the spiny things that live in the ocean are about as far from cute and endearing as you can get.  As a matter of fact, sea urchins are one of the reasons I abandoned a youthful flirtation with skin diving.  I realized one day, a few feet below the surface of Long Island Sound, that I was afraid of urchins, crabs, sharks, jellyfish, stingrays, eels, most other kinds of fish and, in fact, darn near everything down there.  I didn’t even trust the shellfish, who, I suspected, harbored deep and justifiable resentment about Unlimited Fried Clams Night at the local Howard Johnson’s.

Although we use “urchin” today to mean either a poor ragged street child or that sea critter that looks like a golf ball with spikes, neither sense is even close to the original meaning of the word.  They’re also both quite different from some of the uses to which “urchin” has been put over the past seven centuries.

“Urchin” first appeared in English in the late 13th century with the spelling “irchin” (followed shortly thereafter by “hurcheon” and other variants).  The word had been filtered through several other European languages, but the root of all the forms was the Latin “ericius,” which meant “hedgehog.”  Hedgehogs are common in Europe, Africa and Asia, but are not native to North America, so a brief primer is probably advisable.  They are small, spiny mammals covered with quills, which they use to defend themselves when threatened by rolling themselves into a tight ball so the quills point outward.  They cannot, however, throw their quills as porcupines can.

[Note: That sentence, as many readers have pointed out, is inaccurate. Porcupines cannot throw their quills (see Snopes on the topic).  I am now wondering what other lies about the natural world I absorbed from Looney Tunes.]

The first use of “urchin” in English was to mean, logically, “hedgehog,” but soon the word was also applied to people with “prickly” personalities.  “Urchin” was also used to mean “hunchback,” “elf or goblin” (because elves were said to take the form of a hedgehog on occasion), a woman considered old and unattractive, a woman considered too attractive and thus probably “loose,” or a small child of a mischievous or bratty bent.  Most of these uses were based on either a perceived physical resemblance to a hedgehog (as in the case of a hunchback or old woman) or some metaphorical connection to a hedgehog’s behavior.  Those spiny sea urchins have been so called since the early 17th century.  The use of “urchin” to mean “small child” or “infant” appeared in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that our modern sense of “poor street child” became the dominant usage.


File not found.

Dear Word Detective:  Close to a half century ago, I had a summer job with my local municipality, Toronto, Canada.  City garbage collectors sometimes found valuables in trash cans (anything from returnable bottles to fixable appliances) and stowed them away until the day’s end when they were furtively taken home. The common word for these “perks” of the job sounded like “polikens,” though the second vowel may have been “a” and the third “i” (I never saw it written).  My best guess is that it may derive from the demeaning terms for a person from Poland, (Archie Bunker’s famous “polack”) and imply that Polish people are “garbage pickers,” but that is just a guess.  As I reach retirement age (and my “nest egg” shrinks in value), I may return to this sort of treasure hunt (a.k.a. “dumpster diving”) in the hope of supplementing my pension.  It is, after all, more adventuresome and possibly more lucrative than saying, “Welcome to Wal-Mart.” — Howard A. Doughty.

That’s a good question, but I have one of my own.  Did you, in your tenure as an Urban Sanitation Engineer, engage in the stereotypical garbage collector tradition of affixing a teddy bear to the front of your truck?  What’s up with that?  I worked in a paper recycling warehouse for a couple of years back in the 1970s, and we hung all sorts of inappropriate “found objects”  (stuffed animals, shoes, etc.) from our baling machine and forklifts, but I never really understood why we did it.  Some primal attempt to distance ourselves from the job, I guess.

We also found a variety of things in the trucks of waste paper that we dealt with, but we didn’t have a special name for the rare treasure we came across, although I’m not surprised that you did.  Especially if the item is not supposed to be in your possession, it’s handy to have another name for it besides “that perfectly good TV we found.”

I had never encountered the term “polikens” before, so I went looking in my usual sources.  And I looked, and looked.  Then I looked in my unusual sources.  Then I began Googling under every possible spelling.  I eventually began to seriously consider the possibility that “polikens” was some weird form of “palichnology,” also known as “paleoichnology,” the study of fossil footprints.  Did you have any paleontology grad students in your crew?  Probably not.

So I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to your question.  Your theory tying the word to the derogatory term “Polack” applied to people of Polish ancestry is certainly possible, and may, depressingly, be the answer.  I hope not, because it would be much more fun if it “polikens” had an interesting (and inoffensive) origin all its own.

So for the time being, the best I can do is to “open source” this question and appeal to my readers.  If anyone out there has ever heard the term “polikens” in the sense of “something valuable found” or “perk or side benefit of a job,” please drop me a line via the question form at  This approach has worked before, and if I learn anything about “polikens,” I’ll definitely pass it along.