Dykes and dikes

It’s hardly a secret in language weblog circles that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has refused to register Dykes on Bikes as a trademark.

bq. Twice, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has rejected the Dykes’ application, on the grounds that “dyke” is vulgar, offensive and “scandalous.” Patent office attorneys even point to Webster’s dictionary, which says dyke is “often used disparagingly.”

bq. “The examining attorney found it to be offensive to a significant portion of the lesbian community,” said Jessie Roberts, a trademark administrator with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. “And we’re also looking out for the sensitivities of the general public more than that of a specific applicant.”

This mystifying decision has led to an in-depth discussion on Language Log of an obscure American word for pliers.

bq. 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”).

Everyone seems unaware of the problem in legal English of knowing whether a dyke or dike is a wall or a ditch. The ditch meaning is surely not a secret? The OED says:

bq. c893 K. Ælfred Oros. ii. iv. §7 Ymbutan þone weall is se mæsta díc, on þæm is iernende se un¼efo¼lecesta stream. c1400 Destr. Troy 1566 With depe dikes and derke doubull of water. 1549 Compl. Scot. vi. 38 The fresche deu, quhilk of befor hed maid dikis and dailis verray donc. 1594 Plat Jewell-ho. ii. 60 Syr Edward Hobbie+hath stored certeine dikes in the Ile of Sheppey, with sundrie kindes of Sea-fish, into which dikes by sluces, he doth let in+change of sea-water. 1634–5 Brereton Trav. (1844) 43 An invention well deserving to be put in practice in England over all moats or dykes. a1687 C. Cotton Poet. Wks. (1765) 108 In Dike lie, Drown’d like a Puppy. 1693 Evelyn De la Quint. Compl. Gard. II. 184, I made+some little dikes or water-courses about a foot deep+to receive the mischievous waters. 1697 Dryden Virg. Georg. i. 441 Whole sheets descend of slucy Rain, The Dykes are fill’d. 1791 Cottingham Inclos. Act. 28 Division drains or dikes and ditches. 1821 Clare Vill. Minstr. I. 99 Some rushy dyke to jump, or bank to climb. 1873 G. C. Davies Mount. & Mere vi. 49 A heron sailed majestically away from a dyke.

It’s also, by extension, slang for a WC or urinal.

Why does it mean both a wall and a ditch? Perhaps because one was created when the other was dug out. After all, there’s a presumption in English law that where a boundary runs along a ditch and hedge, it is presumed to be along the edge of the ditch furthest from the bank, because it’s assumed that the landowner will dig the ditch on the farther edge of his land and throw the earth on to his own land, to avoid trespassing on his neighbour’s land (see Trevor M. Aldrige, Boundaries, Walls and Fences).

6 thoughts on “Dykes and dikes

  1. Good heavens, I’d forgotten that one. Now what has Language Log got to say about that? There’s a dyke you can’t put your finger in…

  2. You know, when I first heard “to put one’s finger in the dyke [dike]”, I only knew the word as slang for “lesbian”. Made for a few minutes of wild giggling in my household back then.

    And now Mark Liberman brandishing his own dikes… where will it end?

    P.S.: When I spell-checked this comment, the AmE version of the dictionary I use (it comes with the “Spellbound” extension for Firefox) didn’t have “dyke” at all. Grrrrr.

  3. Well, I might have been playing with words there, but at least I saved it for the comments.
    Mark’s type only come in pairs, don’t they? Have you got a pair of dikes in the woodshed?
    Eudora is giving two chili peppers to messages on this topic.

  4. Well, I don’t have a woodshed… :).

    P.S.: My usual email address is suddenly marked as “invalid”. Did MT flag me as “offensive” or something?

  5. Sorry, I missed this. I don’t know why your email address is invalid. Has it got ‘p*k*r’ in it? I sometimes ban chunks of text. (I had to put asterisks in that word to print it myself). It’s all my doing, anyway, and the banning is done by MT-Blacklist.

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