“Dicey”

Reader Tony Mates, from Seattle, writes:

I am surprised that “dicey” is not on your list. Though fairly common in the US nowadays, I do recall having to ask my English mother about it back in the 1980s. 

“Fairly common” might understate the case. Let’s go to Google Books Ngram Viewer. It tells a fairly clear story about the word, which the OED defines as “Risky, dangerous; uncertain, unreliable.”

That is, the word apparently originated in Britain, was picked up in the U.S. in the ’70s, started to be used more frequently here in about 1990, and is now so common that Americans (meaning me) had no idea it originated across the pond. In honor of the word, I have created a new category, “Outstripped.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang classifies the word as “RAF slang” and gives its first citation Nevile Shute’s 1950 novel A Town Like Alice: “He […] made a tight, dicey turn round in the gorge with about a hundred feet to spare.” (Shute was an Englishman with an aeronautics background who moved to Australia late in his life.) The first American quote is from 1961.

Now, to repeat, “dicey” feels like an Americanism. Why else would the New York Times have used it 53 times in the last year alone?

6 thoughts on ““Dicey”

  1. Fascinating! I would have thought it came along during the heyday of hardboiled detective fiction in the 1920s and 30s (and would have associated it with craps players) – but the numbers presumably don’t lie.

  2. To use an expression I cannot stand (just a personal preference, not a blanket condemnation), I’m gobsmacked to learn that dicey is a British, rather than American, word. I don’t recall ever hearing British people say it. They usually say “dodgy” for some of the uses of dicey and who knows what for other uses.

    In the hope of forestalling “corrections,” I am aware that dodgy is not exactly the same as dicey. But if a British person were to, say, express doubt about the wisdom of walking in a given neighborhood after dark, s/he would likely say, “Hmm, it’s might be kind of dodgy then,” whereas an American might very well use “dicey.”

    1. I’m British and I definitely use the word ‘dicey’ – though it’s a bit old-fashioned. As Mr Ballard says (sorry you didn’t manage to forestall me), dodgy means potentially illegal or underhand, while dicey means dangerous to life and limb.

      You might say: “That’s a dodgy deal he’s offering you on that used car”, or, “I’d cross the river by the stepping stones, but it looks dicey in this cold weather”.

  3. Mr Ballard needs to watch more 1950s films, especially those with a large RAF element 🙂

    Dicey, for me, has always indicated that death is a possible outcome, whereas dodgy simply means untrustworthy or unreliable.

    “Shute was an Englishman with an aeronautics background…”
    Ahem. Neville Shute Norway was an engineer who (originally) wrote novels in his spare time. He worked with with Barnes-Wallis (yes *that* Barnes-Wallis) at Vickers on the R-100 and went on to found Airspeed (Ferry, Envoy, Courier, Horsa etc.) with Hessell-Tiltman. He adopted Shute as his pen name to avoid possible embarrassment in his professional role. If you’re interested, his autobiography, “Slide Rule” is well worth a read.

  4. No comment about the language aspect, just to say my father said he once did a turn similar to what Shute describes. He was an RAF flying instructor in Canada 1941-44 and was, as I recall, with a student in a twin-engine Anson. They were pootling along in the mountains when my father realised he had miscalculated and they wouldn’t be able to climb high enough fast enough to clear the head of the valley they were in. So they made a turn within the valley and headed back down it again. (Didn’t really put him off – he carried on flying after the war, retiring on Boeing 707s with Kuwait Airways in 1974.)

    I don’t particularly recall him or his airline colleagues – mostly ex-RAF too – saying “dicey”, but they might well have done. One, Ian Whittle (son of Sir Frank), was prone to use RAF phrases such as “wizard prang” – or at least, so I remember it as a very young person.

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