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Tick a lock

Put it in the vault.

Dear Word Detective: While we watching a rerun (obviously) of “The Andy Griffith Show,” one of the characters used the phrase “tick a lock.” While its meaning is fairly clear, with the inclusion of the hand gesture imitating the use of a key to turn a lock, I was wondering where the term came from. — Brenda Chastain.

Well, there you go. This is why I don’t get anything done. I just spent a half-hour reading all the Wikipedia pages associated with that show and learned all sorts of interesting things I’ll forget later this afternoon. I wasn’t a huge fan of the show as a kid (liked Barney Fife, wanted to strangle Gomer Pyle), but I’m not surprised that reruns of it are enduringly popular. The denizens of Mayberry are so deeply rooted in America’s subconscious that when a White House official resigned in 2001 and derided his former colleagues as “Mayberry Machiavellis,” some people may have been unclear on just who Machiavelli was, but Mayberry was instantly understood as the archetypal American small town. (And yes, Niccolo Machiavelli, like Victor Frankenstein, is unfairly tarred, as an eponym, with the sins of his creation.)

There are, it’s safe to say, a lot of “ticks” in English. The oldest is the bloodsucking arachnid known as the “tick,” the modern form of the Old English “ticca,” which has close relatives in many other Germanic languages. Next up (dating from the 15th century) is “tick” meaning “pillow-case” or “mattress cover,” ultimately from the Latin “teka” and better known in the form “ticking,” meaning the sort of durable cloth from which such “ticks” were originally made. There’s also a “tick” that first appeared in the mid-17th century meaning “credit” or “trust,” most often in phrases such as “on tick” meaning “on credit” (“When he had no funds he went on tick,” Thackeray, 1848). That “tick” is probably just a shortening of “ticket” in the sense of “IOU.”

That brings us to the “tick” that appeared in the mid-15th century meaning “a light tap or pat” or, a bit later, in the 17th century, “a quick, light, clicking sound” of the sort made by a watch or clock. This “tick” has relatives in several other languages (e.g., Norwegian “tikke,” to touch lightly), and the whole family of “ticks” was almost certainly formed “echoically,” in imitation of the action or sound of a light, quick pat or touch.

This “tick,” as both a noun and a verb, went on to develop a dizzying range (I’m dizzy just writing this) of meanings both literal and figurative, from “tick” meaning “a single moment” (from the tick of a clock) to “mark next to an item on a list” (“to tick someone off” originally meant “to reject or dismiss,” probably from being crossed off a list).

One meaning of “tick” the verb that developed in the early 20th century was “to operate with a light, quick effort or action,” as one might “tick out” a message with a telegraph key, and this brings us back to Mayberry.  “Tick a lock,” judging by the entry for the phrase in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), was used a number of times by characters in the show, especially Andy’s Aunt Bee. The phrase was also a favorite of Archie Bunker in All in the Family, and it’s apparently still popular throughout the American South and South Midlands. DARE notes that the expression is usually accompanied by a gesture of turning a key in a lock, but the lock is a metaphorical one, a lock on your lips. “Tick a lock” (sometimes “tick-a-lock” or “tickalock”) means “to keep quiet” or “to keep a secret” (the equivalent of “zip it” or “put it in the vault” on Seinfeld). “Tick a lock” can thus be either a command (as Aunt Bee usually used it) or a promise not to tell a secret or say something unpleasant (“I’m Mr. Sunshine for the rest of the year, y’all. If I can’t say something good about a person or topic, I’ll just zip it. Tickalock, OK?” AR Times (Little Rock) 2006). “Tick a lock” is also used in some children’s games to declare a time out, claim immunity, or designate another player as being “in jail” and temporarily out of the game.


Mmm, citrusy good. But I think I just broke a tooth.

Dear Word Detective: I read the ingredients printed on a package of taco shells (ground corn, lime, vegetable shortening). I’ve heard (well, read) different views on what form of “lime” is meant in tortilla recipes, but I got to wondering: Is the “lime” in limestone (dull, grey, sedimentary rock) in any way related to the “lime” that is a bright, green, citrusy addition to a good gin and  tonic? And for that matter, how do “limey” and “blimey” work into the mix? — Danny.

Gin and tonic, eh? I’ve always said that if I were to take up drinking, it’d be gin and tonics, the only mixed drink that ever tasted good to me. There’s also the odd fact that when I was very small, there was someone on our road who drank a lot of Gilbey’s gin and always threw the frosted glass bottles on our lawn. I thought those bottles were incredibly cool, but my parents wouldn’t let me collect them. Probably afraid I’d take a few dozen to “Show and Tell” day at my school.

I must admit that your first two sentences, about taco shells containing lime, intrigued me, and I subsequently spent a good hour or so researching the question of what sort of “lime” is being dished up by Taco Bell. It turns out that some tortilla recipes do call for the juice of the “lime” fruit, but that’s not the main sort of “lime” in taco-land.

It all begins with the mineral limestone, a hard, plentiful form of calcium carbonate often used to build large buildings and similar durable structures. (Fun fact: The crystalline form of limestone is marble.) Limestone is also used to make calcium oxide, also known as “quicklime,” “burnt lime,” or simply “lime.”  This “lime” is made by subjecting limestone to very high heat in a kiln; the result, quicklime, is an extremely caustic substance widely used in industry (and in old murder mysteries to dispose of the body). Incidentally, back in the 19th century, before the widespread introduction of electric lighting, theaters used “limelight,” a brilliant white light produced by heating quicklime, as stage lighting. The term “limelight” is still used as a metaphor for “public attention,” usually positive (“The beauty of his person … helped to throw the limelight upon him,” 1908).

Interestingly, the English word “lime” behind all this comes from Germanic roots meaning “to smear,” which makes more sense when you find that “lime” was originally used to mean a sticky substance made from holly bark and used to trap birds. The change in meaning came about because “quicklime” was often a component of mortar, which makes bricks stick together.

So “quicklime” is pretty nasty stuff and would be a bad choice as a food ingredient, but if you mix it the right way with water, you get calcium hydroxide, also known as “slaked lime,” which is much less scary and plays all sorts of useful roles in industry (it’s used in depilatories, for instance). In food preparation, slaked lime is used as a calcium supplement, in pickling, and, here ya go, to make the corn meal flour in tortillas stick together better. So that’s the lime on the taco shell package (which, as I said, may also mention lime fruit juice).

Meanwhile, back at your gin and tonic, the name of the citrus fruit resembling a green lemon called a “lime” is from a completely unrelated source. “Lime” came from the Old French “limon,” which at that time meant citrus fruit in general, including both lemons and limes. Portuguese, French and Spanish have similar words, and all are probably of Middle Eastern origin (Persian “limun,” Arabic “lima,” etc.).

“Limey” (originally “lime-juicer”) as a colloquial and mildly derogatory term for a British person goes back to the 19th century Royal Navy, when sailors were required to drink lime juice at sea to ward off scurvy (caused by a lack of vitamin C). “Blimey” and “gorblimey,”  stereotypical lower-class British expressions of distress or astonishment, are corruptions of, respectively, “Blind me!” and “God blind me!” Both date to the 19th century, are now usually heard only in films, and have nothing to do with limes.

Worth a lick

 Not nothing, but barely.

Dear Word Detective: Recently, a foreign forum user asked what “lick” is supposed to mean. The phrase he was referring to was “Worth a lick.” I was a bit perplexed that your cats hadn’t asked. — Richard Clow.

Well, perhaps they have. I stopped listening to them after they suggested I buy stock in Facebook. It was one of those rare times I’m glad I don’t have any money, because if I had had any money and had spent it on that, I wouldn’t have any money anymore. People say that Facebook can’t possibly collapse because they have, like, six billion users or something, but those people need to (a) Google “tulipomania,” (b) read Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” a few times, and (c) check out the recent business history of Myspace. Sometime soon the only people left on Facebook will be (a) parents spying on their own kids, and (b) those sad little strip-mall mattress stores that have “Like Us on Facebook!” signs flashing all night long in darkened and silent small towns in Ohio.

“Lick” as a noun first appeared around 1600, drawn directly from the verb “to lick,” which came from the Old English “liccian,” based on Germanic roots that were probably imitative, i.e., the word imitated the action or sound of licking. As a verb, “lick” means “to pass the tongue over something; to lap at” to taste the thing, moisten it, etc. “To lick” in the sense of “to defeat” (“OSU licked Michigan again in the dreams of many fans”) was originally “lick up,” to vanquish, probably from the Coverdale Bible of 1535, which used the image of an ox “licking up” (eating) all the grass in a field.

In its most basic sense, “lick” as a noun means “an act of licking,” but from early on it was also used to mean “a small amount,” such as the amount of food as could be had in a single lick. Thus “a lick” could simply mean “a small amount of food” (“Everybody brought ‘sunthin’—some a lick of meal, some a punkin’ [etc.],” 1853). But a “lick” of something could be a small amount of anything, even such intangibles as “work” (“But all day yesterday an’ to-day he hain’t worked a lick,” 1902), intelligence (“I was fool enough to argue with him a bit, trying to see if he didn’t have a lick of sense,” 1919), or simply aptitude or ability in anything (“His grandfather was a preacher and he couldn’t read a lick,” 1971). It’s this “small amount” sense of “lick” found in the phrase “worth a lick” in your question.

“Lick” can also be used to mean “a brief or superficial effort,” as in the phrase “a lick and a promise” meaning “a quick washing or cleaning,” the “promise” being an implicit one to do a more thorough job at some later time (“The room, instead of its usual vigorous cleaning, got what Nelly would have called a lick and a promise,” 1934).

The “small” and “brief” connotations of “lick” are are also found in the less cheerful use of “lick” to mean “a quick, smart blow,” especially from a cane, whip or stick, which dates back to the 17th century (“[He] gave the Fellow half a dozen good Licks with his Cane,” 1680). We still use this sense in phrases such as “to take one’s licks,” meaning to accept one’s expected punishment or criticism (“He and his … Socialist Movement have been taking their licks,” 1987).

On the positive side, however, since the 1930s “lick” has been musicians’ slang for a short, dynamic musical phrase or catchy solo inserted into a musical performance (“The blues riff is even better, full of Charlie Parker-like bebop licks,” 1970).