Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Etymological Hour: "How's Tricks?"

Nate used this phrase in an email recently, and I've since heard it several more times over the past few months. Is it making a resurgence?

In case you don't know, the relatively rare phrase essentially means the same as "How's it going?"
An exchange might go something like this...
Nate: Yo Ben, I ain't heard from ya in weeks! How's tricks? 
Ben: Not bad, dude. Wowzerz, that bling yr sportin' is RADiculous!
But the etymology of the phrase is interesting, and a bit mysterious...
According to the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the phrase derives from either the nautical meaning of 'trick' ('turn of duty') or the card game 'trick'.

But from its early days, the phrase was considered crude, as evidenced by this 1924 reference: "'Well, Mrs. H., how's tricks?' His wife flushed slightly at the vulgarity of the phrase." Usage became prevalent in the 1930s, especially among pimps who'd ask the prostitutes in their employ how business was going ('turning tricks'), but the phrase was soon adopted by all the cool kids with greased-back hair and leather jackets...

So, the exchange might go more like this:
Ben: Nice gold lamé miniskirt and bowtie! How's tricks? 
Nate: Not good, Ben, not good at all...the market for hairy gold-lamé-wearing hookers has seemingly dried up in Wisconsin!
Or, the phrase may have more benign origins... from The Maven's Word of the Day:

"But I'm not convinced that's the whole story on trick. The noun form of the Latin verb tricari is tricae, meaning 'trifles, toys.' From at least the mid-16th century we have trick referring to 'a trinket, bauble, knick-knack.' Farmer's A Dictionary of Slang, published in 1890, lists as current "Western American" slang a sense of trick meaning 'belongings, things, baggage.' For a phrase that is equivalent to "How's things?," it's not too far-fetched to think that it may have been influenced by this sense."

But the sexual connotation has outlived all others, making 'How's tricks?' a fun way to both show an interest in how someone is doing and mildly insult them at the same time!

And, by the way, did I just coin the word 'RADiculous'?!


Jaol said...

No, ..I don't think you coined that at all. At least, I hope you didn't.

Ms Amber said...

I am now a fan of you. Excellent blog. I had to comment because it was just too RADiculous to not.

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, it's not "tricks", it's "TRIX". with a capital 'T'.

I understand you are just explaining what you found from other sources, but I disagree with the sexual innuendo connotation part.

The 'proper' (whatever) usage: "Hi Jane, how's Trix?" , and it was the "Hey Jane, wassup?" of the 50's and 60's.

Anonymous said...

You'll hear a lot of people, who admit to recognizing the phrase, say it has something of a sexual nature attached to it. Usually connecting it to "ladies of the night" would be the usual euphemism. This comes from the use of the phrase "turning tricks" when it comes to prostitutes. But they don't stop to think why it's used even there and where it came from. The sexual nature of the phrase "trick" came after and is unrelated but similar.

It all goes back to the game of Bridge. In the game of contract bridge you bid that you'll win a certain number of tricks each round. Taking a trick is playing the highest value card of the four played that turn. So, asking "How's tricks" is asking... "how's it going?"

The use of the phrase rose at the same time as bridge did. Bridge was most popular in the 30s and 40s and that was the height of the use of the phrase as well. As the popularity of Bridge declined, so did the use of the phrase. Though in recent years it's been gaining in use again.

My assumption in how it got linked to prostitution was card playing pimps. A girl was expected to have a certain number of customers a night (the bid) and those were the tricks. If you didn't make your book for the night, you lost the round... no waffles for you.

Anyway... the use of the phrase "how"s tricks" is not a vulgar phrase, nor is it lewd. You may here it mentioned in old descriptions as vulgar, but you have to remember that word has changed as well. "vulgar at that time meant "common" more so than the "lewd, profane" that many consider its primary definition now. All slang was vulgar.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Talk about synchronicities! Was just thinking of the origins of this phrase,"how's tricks?", after watching an old 40's movie. My husband's name is Nate and his younger brother's name is Ben. Our last name begins with H so their Mom is called Mrs.H all the time! Wonderful blog! Have a good year!

Anonymous said...

You're all wrong... :) It's short for 'How's Trixie and the kids?' - a common way to ask someone how their family is doing in the early 1900s when Beatrix and Beatrice were popular names (and so yes, it's supposed to be 'How's Trix?'). The prostitutes and pimps references are seriously silly! :)

Anonymous said...

Google books search shows an 1884 reference for the use of "How's tricks?" in a satirical journal called The Grip. I can't find any references to "How's Trixie and the kids?" on google books/ngrams, or on the internet in general.

Ngrams shows it's use peaked in 1940, but has been creeping back up since the low point in the 60s. How's trix is not really used that much in comparison.

Personally, I remember it as being spelled with an 'x' and having connotations of prostitution, though I don't remember where I first heard it.

Deb Chasteen said...

I don't want to alienate you Trix/Trixie people, but the phrase is indeed "How's tricks? My delightful grandmother, born in 1899, would winsomely cock her white-curled head and make an entrance with "How's tricks?" Since she would have been in her 20s during the 1920s, and of as theatrical bent (she once regaled me with an animated bit from her elocution lessons— see below), she used it colloquially. However, she would never have used any word at all sexual in nature: she and my great-aunt lived as though they were fixed to the 30s. It was a fun, sprightly greeting to her. Also, keep in mind words change with time:
'vulgar' to 'common' to 'slang'.

Here's the 1910s elucation exercise:
I'm afraid to look my dolly in the eyes/For I've told her such an awful lot of lies/ And if she only knew/Who knows what she would do?/I'm afraid to look my dolly in the eyes.

Anonymous said...

Trix are for kids, silly rabbit ;)

Anonymous said...

My only exposure to "how's tricks" was in the early 1970's. I worked in a store in Princeton, N.J, and a lady of very proper standing, from the west end of town, who also knew my parents well, would greet me with it whenever she came to the store. I am absolutely confident that this lady would never have used an expression that even remotely resembled sexual innuendo. It was simply a kind and casual greeting.

tarique hasan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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Pól said...

Whether it's tricks or Trix is hard to determine as it's clearly now a term that's been transmitted aurally without knowledge of original context. My mother and grandfather both used the term but would certainly not have done so if there was a prostitution connection. I think that's just a fanciful presumption perpetuated by the internet.

Incidentally, Vulgar is derived from the latin vulgaris. Common species (common at the time of their discovery!) often have vulgaris as part of their latin name.

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