Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Nope, I'm not trying to make a fowl joke here.  Being a child of the sixties, I kind of assumed that the slang term "chick" to refer to a large, gregarious, omnivorous, allegedly intelligent female primate of the attractive sort originated back in the late 'beatnik' or early 'hippy' days.  After all, that explanation feels right-on and has kind of a groovy vibe.  Do you know what 'assume' (ass + u + me) does?  It makes me WRONG!!!

So, why would I even bother researching such a thing?  Well, our local newspaper has been consistently reporting the news, with varying degrees of accuracy, since back in 1903.  On page two, they have a small column titled "Looking Back" in which they print a synopsis of news stories from historical editions.  Typically it includes a brief bit about news from 10, 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago.  James Brooks is the dude who compiles the column, and he also keeps a blog on the Daily News Miner site where he expands a bit on the historical events of our region.   Being an old school sort of guy, I check his blog from time to time to see what I might have missed.

Tonight his blog includes a 1959 article about the town of Chicken, Alaska in the Forty-mile country.  Like any story about Chicken, it includes the story of how the town was named (no-one there could spell Ptarmigan), but this particular article included a historical gem.  "A number of old Indian chiefs live about 50 miles from Chicken to trade. These good red men evidently had a roving eye in feminine beauty. They always said “Lots of pretty chickens at Chicken.” They meant pretty girls."

That prompted the thought that chicks have been called 'chicks' a lot longer than I thought.  So, how long have chicks been chicks?  Well, as they say - "Google is your friend." Here is what I discovered.

The word chick is a short form for chicken and its use in American slang to refer to a young woman is attributed to Sinclair Lewis' book Elmer Gantry (1927)

He had determined that marriage now would cramp his advancement in the church and that, anyway, he didn't want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners. But that caution he had utterly forgotten in emotion, and her question was authentically a surprise, abominably a shock

OK, that was a long time before the beatniks or hippies, but wait - there's more.  

"Chick" = "[young] woman/girl" is cited in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang as being in use from 1899.

Now, it was a chick who wrote the article that the news-dude copied, but because he is a dude, it got me thinking about the origin of the slang term 'dude'.  Being a child of the west, I assumed the term originated in the land of the 'dude-ranch', and this time I was closer to the facts.

The term "dude" was first used in speech in 1873. It was first used in print in 1876, in Putnam's Magazine.  One of the earliest books to use the word was The Home and Farm Manual, written by Jonathan Periam in 1883. In that work, Periam used the term "dude" several times to denote an ill-bred and ignorant, but ostentatious, man from the city.  The word became prominent in surfer culture in the early '60s, but it wasn't until the mid-'70s that it started creeping into the mainstream.

Whether you are a dude or you are a chick, you have to admit that this historical stuff is pretty far out.    

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