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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).


Travels with Trifey.

Dear Word Detective:  For many years, I have worked with juvenile delinquents at various institutions in Ohio. They used to use the word “trifey” as a synonym for “dirty” (as in “a person gets lice by being trifey, don’t he?”), but now it just seems to be an all-purpose insult. Moreover, it seems that they are conflating it with the word “trifling,” only not pronouncing the “g.” An online urban dictionary stated that it originally meant “slutty” but I have not heard it used that way. I read somewhere that the word may have derived from “treyf” (sometimes spelled “traife”), a Yiddish word meaning “un-kosher.” Can you tell me if this is the correct etymology, and if not what is? — Emily Coulson.

Read it somewhere, eh? You weren’t living in New York City back around 1996, were you? I ask because back then I was writing a column for the Daily News called City Slang in which I answered questions about, well, city slang. And I happened to write an item about the word “trife,” which I still have on my computer, which is amazing. This may mean I need a new computer.

Anyway, the good news is that I actually remembered writing that column as soon as I read your question, which should prove to certain people that I am not enfeebled, despite the fact that I sometimes leave a dog or two outside after a walk. So I’m glad this question came round again. I just hope it doesn’t mean I’m about to be inundated with a new wave of questions about “the third word ending in ‘gry’.” If that doesn’t ring a bell, please don’t ask.

It’s apparent from your explanation that the “trife” a reader asked me about in 1996 and the “trifey” you’ve encountered are, in fact, the same word. At that time I wrote that “In current hip hop and rap slang, an action or thing that is ‘trife’ (rhymes with ‘wife’) is bad or degrading in an especially low way. Cheating on your income taxes may be wrong, but ripping off your friends or hurting your family is truly ‘trife.'” The term seems to have appeared in rap slang in the 1980s, but the earliest example I’ve found so far is from the song “Mecca and the Soul Brother” (Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, 1991): “Okay, you wanna act trife and flip the script / With your Wonderama drama slash coma riff.” (“Flip the script” is a great slang phrase meaning “reverse course, change your mind, turn the tables, do the unexpected.”)

At the time I first wrote about “trife,” I noted that its origin was very uncertain, but that the source might well be “the Yiddish word ‘trayf’ (rhymes with ‘safe’), used to describe food that is not Kosher and thus forbidden.  In a broader sense, ‘trayf’ is applied to anything thought to be wrong or harmful, from racy movies to shady business deals.” The word “trayf” (which is also spelled “trefa,” “trifa,” “treyf,” “traife” and a few dozen other ways) comes from the Hebrew “taraf,” meaning literally “to tear or rend,” and originally referred to the flesh of an animal that had been killed by a wild beast, i.e., the roadkill of the day, not slaughtered in accordance with the dictates of Jewish religious law.

No sooner had my column on “trife” been published, however, than I received a note from Dr. Angela Taylor, then at Rutgers University and now an authority on criminal justice at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, who suggested that “Rather than stemming from the word ‘trayf,’ it is more likely that trife is an abbreviation of the word ‘trifling,’ which is in common use among African-Americans. Especially among the young, ‘trifling’ has acquired a meaning that goes beyond its dictionary definition (i.e., petty, unimportant) to describe negative behavior that is beyond the pale.”

So is “trife” (or “trifey”) an expanded sense of “trayf” that made the leap into the hip-hop world of the 1980s, or a greatly expanded use of “trifling” to mean “very bad, dishonest, unpleasant, dirty”?  It’s impossible to say, although I tend to lean towards the “triflng” theory simply because it involves a linear expansion of a common word and not a radical leap over cultural boundaries. Of course, it’s also possible that both theories are somewhat true; “trayf” is not an obscure term in urban areas, even to non-Jews, and its expanded sense of “no good, disgusting, wrong” makes that one little word very useful.


The Armchair Ornithologist.

[Note: as will shortly become obvious, this column was written last December.]

Dear Word Detective:  What is a “smalas”? Jules Verne uses it in “An Antarctic Mystery” (Chapter X) when looking at a flock of penguins. As he usually uses “stupid” in front of the word “penguin,” I’m assuming it’s derogatory. All I can come up with is a reference to the entourage that follows an Arab sheik where ever he goes, so I don’t really get what Jules means. Can you help? — Rose Hopwood.

That’s a darn good question. Speaking of penguins, something occurred to me recently while I was lying insensate in front of the TV, hypnotized by the non-stop barrage of holiday shopping ads. It’s a good thing I don’t have any money, or I’d be up to my eyebrows in iPhones, iPads, iPads for Pets, iBlenders and iPlumberSnakes. Anyway, what’s up with Santa Claus and the penguins that have begun to appear with him in many commercials? Because there are, in fact, no penguins, none, nada, at the North Pole. Penguins live mostly in Antarctica, at the other end of the freaking planet. Hmmph. When it comes to Santa Claus, I expect zoological accuracy. Now about those reindeer…

Thanks for asking about a word that appears in a public-domain book. It’s very dispiriting when someone asks a question about something they found in a book to which my only access involves ponying up $25 to Amazon. But “An Antarctic Mystery” is available freely on the internet.

Verne certainly seems to be out of step with our modern adoration of penguins. As you note, it’s rare to find a mention of them in his 1897 book without that pejorative adjective nearby (“These stupid birds, in their yellow and white feathers, with their heads thrown back and their wings like the sleeves of a monastic habit, look, at a distance, like monks in single file walking in procession along the beach,” Chapter I). One doesn’t have to be an ornithologist to find that level of antipathy toward an innocent little bird weird, and it’s even weirder given the fact that Verne had never been anywhere near Antarctica (or even the southern Indian Ocean, the setting of the story) when he wrote the book.

In any case, the relevant passage in Chapter X describes the penguins’ entirely understandable reaction to the approach of Verne’s protagonist: “Whole ‘smalas’ of penguins, standing motionless in interminable rows, brayed their protest against the invasion of an intruder — I allude to myself.”

By “smalas” Verne apparently means “large group, crowd,” and his placement of the term in quotation marks could be taken as an indication that it is a zoological term or what James Lipton (author of the wonderful collection of such terms “An Exaltation of Larks”) called a “term of venery,” such as “pride of lions” or “murder of crows.” But Verne’s use of “smalas” is an extended sense of a term he had no doubt picked up from adventure books himself, and its origin has as little to do with penguins as Verne himself did.

You won’t find “smalas” in an English dictionary because it’s French, and in that language a “smala” or “smalah” is simply an “entourage,” a group of people who routinely accompany a person of power or prestige. In Hollywood, for instance, a famous actor’s “smala” would probably consist of several childhood friends, a few assistants, a bodyguard or two, a broker and a botox artist. Here at Word Detective World Headquarters, my “smala” seems to consist largely of cats, though I do have two dogs on call in case the UPS guy shows up.

The root of “smala” in French is the Arabic word “zmalah,” meaning “tribe,” which originally meant the large retinue accompanying a sheik or other leader on a journey across the desert. Such a group would include other nobility, a contingent of soldiers, and a complete household staff (cooks, servants, etc.). Non-human traveling companions in the “zmalah” routinely included squadrons of camels, of course, but also flocks of sheep and enough furniture and knicknacks to fill a Pottery Barn. Not your usual weekend camping trip, in other words.

Verne’s use of “smala” to mean simply “herd” or “large group” is a bit of a stretch, but by Chapter X he must have pretty much exhausted his thesaurus of terms for lots of birds. And using an exotic term like “smalas” also adds a soupçon of authenticity to a story written by a guy who wouldn’t have known a penguin if it had, justifiably, bitten him.