July 19, 2005

Dykes at the TMRC

I've been looking into the history of the common American term for "diagnonal cutting pliers", which is dykes or dikes. None of the standard English dictionaries have it: the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster's 3rd Unabridged, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, the American Heritage Dictionary, Encarta. In a previous post, I've cited text references going back to 1971 (a U.S. Navy book on hand tools), and (via Ben Zimmer) some hardware-store advertisements from 1977-78, along with a 1955 ad for "diags".

And then there's the entry for the verbal form dike "to attack with dikes" in the Tech Model Railroad Club dictionary. The on-line version of the dictionary says:

This dictionary is derived from one originally written in 1959 by Pete Samson. It was put on the net by Mark Stiles who added some entries. The online version was improved by contributions of several others, including Larry Allen, Richard Polis, Joe Onorato, Mike Patton, and others.

So could this be a citation for "dikes" dating back to 1959?

To find out, I wrote to the TMRC WWW team, and got this answer from Mark Styles ("aka WAS, aka Darkhorse"):

I created the definition for DIKE when I updated Pete's original entries and put the dictionary online on the (then) ARPANET, now the Internet. That was circa 1978. The use of the word at TMRC in that capacity certainly predates that by at least 3 years, since I learned it the first night I was at TMRC as a freshman in 1975, and diked out an old terminal block to earn hours towards my key.

Regardless of the claims in the current document header, I actually made up most of the post-Sampson definitions and continued to update the document for awhile. In the mid to late eighties it went into hibernation for quite some time.

Larry Allen, Richard Polis and I pulled an all-nighter in the AI lab once to do a big update. Joe Onorato, Mike Patton, Steve Russell and others suggested various definitions around that time. Slug (Steve) came up with GUNCH, I embellished it a little.

A couple of my own personal favorites (especially considering the popularity of the card games at the time) are BRIDGE (multiple puns) and HEARTS, and my all time favorite multiple pun is for EPOXY JOURNAL (sorry, JEM!). Polis almost choked on his cigar when I came up with that one...

Alan Kotok added:

I could be making this up, but it seems to me that "dikes" (however it was spelled) was in common usage when I first showed up at TMRC in 1958.

And Dick Lord agreed:

I've been an electronic hobbyist for close to 50 years (since 1955) and a working hardware design engineer for more than 35 years.  My dad was a long time ham radio operator who had been active in radio from the 1920's.  In all the years of my awareness, I have always heard small diagonal cutters referred to as "dikes" throughout the electronics industry.  Though TMRC can lay claim to a great many words, I'm inclined to believe that the use of the term "dikes" for diagonal cutters preceded the existence of TMRC or the hacker dictionary.

However so far, in my research over the last hour through a half dozen 1955-1956 issues of Popular Electronics and a 1955 Allied Radio parts catalog stashed away in my basement, everything I've run across has referred to them by the name "diagonal cutters."   I haven't run across the slang term in print, but who knows what might turn up.  I have far too many old books and magazines piled up in places where there ought to be trains running !

This agrees with my memory that it was in common usage among the teenage car mechanics that I admired as a ten-year-old in rural eastern Connecticut in 1957.

The Tech Model Railroad Club, or TMRC, is the topic of the first chapter of Steven Levy's 1984 epic "Hackers: Heros of the Computer Revolution", a book that I recommend to anyone who hasn't read it. Project Gutenberg offers the first two chapters of the 1986 edition here.

[Update 7/24/2005: Michael Patton emails:

There's been much discussion of this among the TMRC alumni with the basic result that the term was not in the 1959 version of the dictionary because it was such a common term and not specific to TMRC.

I asked my father, who got his electrical engineering degree from the University of Kentucky in the early 40's, about the term and he said:

I believe they were dykes when I went to work for RCA in 1943 although I never saw the slang term in writing.

So, the slang term pretty definitely predates the TMRC dictionary by many years. Unfortunately, finding it in writing is going to be hard since the slang would usually not have been used there.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 19, 2005 04:09 PM