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Dreck, Dreg

Bottom of the barrel.

Dear Word Detective:  I would like to know if the words “drek” and “dreg” are derived from the same base word.  They mean similar things. — Melissa K.

Good question, and it reminded me of something I learned recently.  This will seem like a complete non sequitur, but bear with me.  From talking to someone who works there, I discovered that the Olive Garden (an “Italian cuisine” restaurant chain in the US), while it charges about nine bucks for a glass of decent wine, charges only twenty-five cents for a quarter-glass “sample” of that same wine, four samples maximum per customer.  It doesn’t make the foam-rubber bread sticks any more palatable, but for a buck a glass, it can’t hurt.

Now that all the winos are on their way to the mall, onward.   “Dreck” (which is how it’s now usually spelled) and “dreg” do share a common, shall we say, ambience.  Both connote things that are generally considered unpleasant, usually unwanted and almost always useless.  But aside from their resemblance, the two words are unrelated.

“Dreg,” while it does exist in the singular form, is almost always seen in the plural “dregs.”  In a literal sense, “dregs” are the the thick sediment that settles and accumulates in the bottom of a bottle (or a tanker truck on its way to the Olive Garden) of wine or other liquor.  Given that humanity has been hitting the sauce pretty much since forever, it’s not surprising that “dregs,” which appeared in English back in the 14th century, harks back to an ancient Old Norse word (“dregg”) meaning the same thing.  “Dregs” is most often encountered in its figurative sense of “the most worthless parts” (as in “the dregs of humanity”) or “the last traces” (“He sacrificed the last dregs of his self-respect by taking the job”).  Incidentally, “dregs of humanity” is considered a hoary cliche, but, then again, “hoary cliche” is a hoary cliche.

“Dreck” is in the same ballpark as “dregs,” but even less attractive. From the Yiddish “drek” (in turn from the German “dreck”), meaning “filth or dung,” “dreck” is generally used to mean “worthless trash, garbage,” most often in a figurative sense.  So a cheap knockoff of a Rolex watch might be dismissed as “dreck” or the season’s offerings in new TV shows summed up by critics as “dreck.”  The first appearance of “dreck” in English found so far occurs, interestingly, in James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, used as a personal insult (“Farewell. Fare thee well. Dreck!”), but such ad hominem use is not very common today.


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.

Chesterfield, Sofa, Couch, Settee

Couching potato, tattered settee.

Dear Word Detective:  I’ve recently bought a new house and am getting ready to move my furniture, which has given my mom occasion to use (and even write out) the word “chesterfield” about a million times.  I now find myself in a fascinating love/hate relationship with word.  On the one hand, hearing my mom use it is like listening to a nail on a blackboard.  On the other, I am finding it particularly hilarious for my own personal use with friends.  I am wondering if you can tell me where the word “chesterfield” and, for that matter, “sofa” and “couch” originated. — Sean Kells.

Well, congratulations on your new house.  Here at Go Figure Farm, we often spend Sunday morning watching a local real estate “showcase” on TV.  Mostly we just quietly make fun of the homeowners’ taste, but lately I’ve begun to wonder at the agents’ grasp of architectural taxonomy.  How in the world can a trapezoidal monstrosity with a two-story “great room” rightly be called a “classic Cape Cod”?  What makes a humdrum 1960s split-level eligible for the label “Colonial”?  The ornate pillars some doofus erected in the rumpus room?  The Early American foosball table?

It’s a tribute to the natural human need to lounge that there are so many names for what we often call simply a “couch.”  The term “couch” itself comes from the French “coucher,” meaning “to lay in place,” reflecting the original sense of a couch as a place for sleeping, not just sitting.  “Sofa” comes from the Arabic “soffa,” which meant a raised part of the floor covered with carpets and pillows for seating.  “Divan,” a term for “couch” your grandmother might have used, comes from the Persian “devan,” which originally meant “assembly of rulers,” but in English came to mean the padded platform upon which the leaders sat.  “Settee,” yet another antiquated  word for “couch,” is just a jocular form of “settle,” which as a noun used to mean “a place to sit.”  The term “davenport” apparently comes from the name of a furniture manufacturer.

All of which brings us to “chesterfield,” meaning a style of couch with upright arms, one of which may be adjustable to allow the user to recline comfortably.  It was named after the Earl of Chesterfield (a now obsolete title) in 19th century England, but the name is probably more evidence of clever marketing than any actual connection to nobility.  The term “Chesterfield” is also used for a type of long single-breasted coat, often sporting a velvet collar.

While we’re on the subject, I recently received another “couch” question from a reader which is driving me slowly nuts.  She grew up in Detroit in the 1950s, and her grandmother used the term “dufo” or “dufoo” for a couch.  If anyone has any knowledge of the term, or anything remotely like it, please let me know at