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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.”


For whom the Clue Phone rings.

Dear Word Detective: We’re wondering when the word “detective” was first used. My daughter thought it might have been used by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for Sherlock Holmes, but I wasn’t able to verify that. — M. Holeman.

That’s a good question and a fine hunch. I’m actually mildly surprised, come to think of it, that I’ve never been asked this question before, given the name of this column. On the other hand, I do receive a steady trickle of email from people who gaily disregard the modifier “Word” in “Word Detective” (not to mention the content of my website) and implore me to slip them the secret to a lucrative career as a private detective. Hey gang, improving your reading comprehension is a good place to start.


Quiet, children. Daddy's watching an irregular verb.

“Detective” is an agent noun, a noun which performs the action of the verb on which it is based, in this case the verb “to detect.” A “detective,” in other words, detects. “Detect,” in turn, comes from the Latin verb “detegere,” meaning “to uncover, discover or detect,” and “detegere” itself is a combination of “de” (meaning “un” in this case) and “tegere,” to cover. “Detect” is one of those fairly rare Latin-derived English words that means roughly just what its Latin roots mean and not much more.

“Detective” actually first appeared in English as an adjective in the 1840s, usually in the phrases “detective police” (“Intelligent men have been recently selected to form a body called the ‘detective police’ …at times the detective policeman attires himself in the dress of ordinary individuals,” 1843) or “detective camera” (a type of small hand camera newly invented at the time). By 1850, “detective police” had been shortened and “detective” was being used as a noun to mean either a member of the police detective bureau or a “private detective” for hire. Conan Doyle had his creation Sherlock Holmes call himself a “consulting detective,” which is a bit classier.

While Sherlock Holmes is without doubt the most famous detective, fictional or real, in history, and certainly popularized the term “detective” in the popular lexicon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle cannot be credited with the first use of the term in reference to an individual. That distinction goes to Charles Dickens, who was so fond of the term that he used it twice in his own magazine “Household Words” (“To each division of the Force is attached two officers, who are denominated ‘detectives’,”1850), then again in his novel “Bleak House” (1852). Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, more than thirty years after Dickens had used the term.

Cool beans

Man’s real best friend.

Dear Word Detective: You’ve explained the word “cool” but the latest rendition seems to be “cool beans.” Do you have any idea why “beans” need to be added to “cool” to mean “excellent” when “cool” alone suffices? Emphasis? But why beans? — Barney Johnson.

Well, why not beans? After all, in the English language, as in life itself, all roads lead to beans. Take the past twenty years of economic life, for instance. First we had the dot-com boom, when many people apparently became rich, and Aeron chairs and four-star restaurants became the rage. Then the “apparently” part kicked in with a vengeance and we found ourselves sitting on packing crates, dining on what? Beans. Then lather, rinse, repeat with the housing boom, but this time we’re plotzed on the curb in our skivvies, chowing down on our little legume pals again. If we’re lucky.


The Great London Bean Exchange, 1775

The English language has never lacked beans, that’s for sure. As the most humble of human foods, beans have long been used as symbols of the trivial aspects of existence, often with reference to the negligible value of a single bean, as in the use of “bean counter” to mean someone obsessed with minor details and ignorant of the “big picture.” Even in large numbers the bean gets no respect, and since the 19th century we have used “hill of beans” to mean something of little or no value (“He didn’t care a hill o’ beans fer no gal,” 1901). “Not to know beans” is the nadir of ignorance, and “not to care beans” is the apex of apathy. “Tough beans!” is another way of saying “Tough luck. Who cares?”

But every dog has his day, and even the lowly bean can prove valuable. So we speak of revealing a secret as “spilling the beans” (from the fact that a basketful of beans, once spilled, are difficult or impossible to retrieve). And while “not to know beans” means to be completely ignorant, “to know beans” has, since the 1800s, meant to be knowledgeable and “with it.” Our ambiguous attitude towards beans is reflected in the expression “full of beans,” which in the 19th century meant “lively, full of energy,” but by the 1940s was also being used to mean “full of nonsense.”

“Cool beans” in the sense of “excellent” or “that’s great” apparently originated as college slang in the US during the 1970s, but many people probably picked it up from the 1980s TV sitcom “Full House,” in which one character habitually used the phrase. It was also apparently used in a Cheech and Chong movie during the same period. I think that what we have in “cool beans” is actually an updating, unconscious among its users, of the colloquial US expression “some beans,” which has been used since the mid-19th century to mean “quite something” or “excellent, awesome” (“By golly, you’re some beans in a bar-fight,” 1850).