[Ads-l] Put Up Your Dukes - Duke of York?

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Tue Jan 19 01:23:53 UTC 2016

"Dukes" (1859), as in "put up your dukes," is generally said to have been derived from rhyming slang; "forks" meant fingers, "Duke of York" rhymes with forks, - therefore "Dukes" are hands.

The reference generally cited in support of the derivation is John C. Hotten's 1874 book,The Slang Dictionary, London, Chatto and
Windus, 1874. HathiTrust.

Hotten, himself, however, published an earlier book, A Dictionary of Modern Slang Cant and Vulgar Words, London, 1859, with a glossary of "rhyming slang," including the phrase, "Duke of York," meaning "take a walk." HathiTrust.

The earliest known print-reference for "dukes," as hands, is from a list of boxers' slang in a slang dictionary compiled by the New York City police commissioner in 1859; Vocabulum; or, The Rogue's Lexicon, New York, G. W. Matsell, 1859. HathiTrust.

In 1860, several reports of an international boxing match between an American and Englishman, held in England, reports the use of "duke" to mean hand by the American's entourage, not the Englishman's entourage.  See, for example, History of the Great International Contest Between Heenan and Sayers at Farnborough, London, George Newbold, pages 67 and 71 (citing Wilkes Spirit of the Times, April 18, 1860). HathiTrust.  

Taken together, it suggests that "dukes," as in put up your dukes, may be American, and not based on British rhyming slang.  The report of "Duke of York" meaning fingers in 1874 may have been true in 1874, influenced, perhaps, by the intervening new usage of "duke"; fifteen years earlier, the same editor, believed "Duke of York" to mean "take a walk."

It at least raises the question.

I have compiled a number of additional references on my blog: Put Up Your "Dukes" - a Punchy History and Etymology of "Dukes."          

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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