Tuesday, September 3, 2013

stop and frisk

If you live in the U.S., you'll know that the term 'stop and frisk' has been much in the news of late, especially in regard to New York City's policing practices. It's become a conventional enough phrase at this point, so it took me a long time to think about the word "frisk" embedded in it. Frisk as in frisky? Or just what, exactly?

Frisk makes it way into written English in 1510, with the meaning of "to dance or frolic". Middle English had it as "lively", stemming from Middle French frisque, which meant lively or brisk, and in Old French had meant fresh or new, lively or animated. Great. But none of this seems much related to the experience of being stopped by the police and being patted down for weapons or contraband, does it? The Online Etymology Dictionary that frisk in the sense of a patdown is recorded from 1781. It doesn't, however, show us how language made the leap between the two meanings.

Luckily The Word Detective is a bit more informative. (You have to scroll down a bit, but you'll find it.) Frisk, meaning to move briskly, gradually came to include such things as brisk movements of the hands. (Brisk and frisk are apparently unrelated, by the way, much to my surprise.) In fact, because brisk movements of the hand were part of the pickpocket's repertoire of skills, the word was 18th century slang for "a thief". (Also "frisker".)

The interesting part about this is that "frisk" changed sides. From meaning "to dip into someone's pockets to steal something", it switched over to mean to search a person for illicit goods. This is not the only time this has happened. Turns out "cop" has followed a similar trajectory.

Now that I've gotten this far, I see that the Wall Street Journal has beaten me to the punch and written of much the same topic just three days ago. I will say that  the writer delved down and found the name of the 1789 book in which "frisk" in this sense first appears in print. But for the answer to that, you are going to have to go HERE.


  1. My old stylist, Crazy Hair Tammy, was originally from New York, used to get very worked up on the subject of being "padded down" by the TSA. She never said "patted down" although she could rant through an entire haircut on the subject.

    Thanks for the entertaining and informative post.

  2. "Padded down" is great,Collagemaman. I hope the language makes one of its shifts in that direction, in fact.

    I don't know if I should be happy or disappointed that the WSJ already covered this territory and more just a few days ago. On the one hand, it's kind of a waste to duplicate other work, but on the other, once I'd begun on it, it's just as well I didn't know until I was all but done.

  3. Actually, "Crazy Hair Tammy" is pretty great too. Ever thought of writing that all up in short story?

  4. Hmm, I see that I just turned you French. Perhaps because I was just recently reading Camus's The Stranger. In Matthew Ward's translation: "Maman died today.

  5. I’m listening now to one of my favorite songs by the Pogues , which includes this use of frisky:

    Fifteen minutes later
    We had our first taste of whiskey
    There was uncles giving lectures
    On ancient Irish history
    The men all started telling jokes
    And the women they got frisky
    By five o'clock in the evening
    Every bastard there was pissed.

    I second your vote for Crazy-Hair Tammy.

  6. Thanks, Peter. I enjoyed that, and just sent it on to one of my nephews, who is pretty into Irish ballads.

    Frisky is a great word, isn't it.

  7. Frisky is naughty, but with fun stepping in for the latter word's smugness. I'll go for frisky any day.

    Speaking of Irish ballads, you'll see from the discussion at Adrian's place that I have stumbled upon Ciaran Carson. It transpires that Carson, in addition to his poems and novels, has written what looks like a marvelously entertaining book about Irish music.

  8. I've got a Ciaran Carson translation of, I think The Tain based on some earlier endorsement by Adrian. Unfortunately, still unread.

  9. Love learning about frisk, Mot Maman!

  10. Peter, thanks for the Carson link. I will have to read or listen to more of that guy.

    Kathleen,thanks.I fear (taking a leaf out of Ciaran's book) that if we venture too far into French here, the mots will quickly run out. Or mine will, at any rate.

  11. His reading adds a dimension of high creepiness to the whimsical tone of the text.

  12. I enjoyed his reading, but as I read the text before I listened to it, I found the creepiness and whimsy pretty well mixed in both.

  13. Let's agree that he gave an effective reading of that poem, that his voice found and made good use of nuances in the text.

  14. Agreed. And it's true that not all poets can read their own work to best effect.

  15. That recording is apparently part of a CD of Carson reading his poems. I'll investigate further.

  16. That recording links to this page of information about the CD. A link from there gives purchase information.

    My verification word is gloglory, appropriate for the subject, I think.

  17. Or was that glogory, which would be a lot better.