July 18, 2005

Documenting dykes

I was unsure how to spell dykes (or is it "dikes"?), and surprised to find that this everyday word is missing from dictionaries, or at least from the half-dozen dictionaries that I tried. (I'm talking about the common term for diagonal-cutting pliers, of course -- I know how to spell the words for "embankment of earth and rock", or "long mass of igneous rock that cuts across the structure of adjacent rock", or "disparaging [ ?] term for a lesbian").

Language Hat picked this up, and noted that "It is indeed strange; I don't recall previously seeing a normal word of long standing, even one of limited circulation, that was not in any dictionary; that snub is usually reserved for recent slang terms."

Attempting to find some print citations for the term, I struck out in the various ProQuest historical newspaper indices, though this may be because of my limited skill in searching them. But for those of you who are not already completely bored with the topic, I'm happy to report that I succeeded easily with Google Print, by searching for {dykes|dikes pliers}. (And even those who are totally dyked out may be interested in a small initial example of the lexicographic value of this service, even in its current beta form.)

Here are a few of the more relevant results for the dykes form:

2000 David E Shapiro "Your Old Wiring" p. 133. There is even less a need for diagonal cutters, also referred to as "side cutters", "side cutting pliers", or colloquially, "dykes," (from DIagonal CutterS). Unlike lineman's pliers, they are designed only for cutting, not grabbing. In some parts of the country, dykes are called "side cutters", confusing though that can be to people who use that term for lineman's pliers.
2001 Newton C Braga "Robotics, Mechatronics and Artificial Intelligence" p. 15. Cutting pliers or diagonals (often called dykes) in sizes from 4 to 6 in.
2004 Art Glass Originals "Stained Glass for the First Time" p. 28. Using lead dykes, cut off each end of the came.

and for dikes:

1980 [Update: actually 1971] Bureau of Naval Personnel "Tools and Their Uses" p. 49. The diagonal cutting pliers, commonly called "diagonals" or "dikes", are designed for cutting wire and cotter pins close to a flat surface and are especially useful in the electronic and electrical fields.
1996 Bruce Caldwell "Auto Upholstery & Interiors" p. 15. Diagonal cutters, which are sometimes known as side cutters or dikes, are the basic tool for removing old upholstery.
1999 Jack G Ganssle "The Art of Designing Embedded Systems" p. 170. You'll live with those dikes and needle-nose pliers for weeks on end.
2002 John Holloway "Illustrated Theatre Production Guide" p. 123. Diagonal pliers or “dikes” are actually intended to cut pieces of wire or small metal hardware like pins or nails.
2003 Rick Peters "Electrical Basics" p. 50. I often use insulated-grip diagonal cutters (commonly called "dikes" in the trade) to cut individual wires in the 10- to 22-gauge range.

I'm from the "side cutters" = "linesman's pliers" culture, by the way.

In a comment on Hat's post, Rupert Goodwins points out that the verb "to dike" is in the Jargon File:

To remove or disable a portion of something, as a wire from a computer or a subroutine from a program. A standard slogan is “When in doubt, dike it out”. (The implication is that it is usually more effective to attack software problems by reducing complexity than by increasing it.) The word ‘dikes’ is widely used to mean ‘diagonal cutters’, a kind of wire cutter. To ‘dike something out’ means to use such cutters to remove something. Indeed, the TMRC Dictionary defined dike as “to attack with dikes”. Among hackers this term has been metaphorically extended to informational objects such as sections of code.

The word surely goes back much further than 1980 -- I learned it in the mid 1950s, and the TMRC (Tech Model Railroad Club) dictionary dates from 1959 (though I can't tell whether dike was in the original version), and Mike Albaugh suggested by email that his father had learned it in his squadron in WWII. I surmise that Google Print is working its way backwards from the present (at least until the submissions from the associated libraries start coming in), so we should learn more in time from that source, if nowhere else. And perhaps someone out there knows when the tool in question was invented.

[Update: Ben Zimmer found two tool shop ads from 1977-78:

Valley News (Van Nuys, CA), Oct 6, 1977, p. IV5
ad for: Tool Shack of America, Inc.
$2.00 EACH

Los Angeles Times, Jun 25, 1978, p. Y14
ad for: The Supertool Shops in Santa Monica
8" linesman plier...$2.95
6" needle nose..$2.85
6" dike..$2.85

Ben observes that both of these are from southern California, and both have the unexpected singular dyke or dike. Ben also found ads going as far back as 1955 for "diags":

The Independent (Pasadena, CA), Dec. 8, 1955, p. 28
ad for: Colorado Hardware
Needlenose, Lineman, Diag's
$2.85 Value

and surmises that diags might have been a transitional form, or at least a transitional spelling.

These were found on newspaperarchive.com.]

[Update: I checked the details on the book "Tools and their Uses" and found that the copyright page says:

This Dover edition, first published in 1973, is an unabridged and unaltered reproduction of the work originally published by the United States Government Printing Office in 1971 as Rate Training Manual NAVPERS 10085-B.

Note that Google Print's algorithms still have a few rough edges: this work is cited in Google Print's index as "Tools and Their Uses", by S. Navy U." ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 18, 2005 06:07 PM