Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Dip Your Card

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column talking about how diphthong (or dipthong) has joined a family of dip-based insults, including dipstick, dipshit, and just plain dip. When I researched the column, I was surprised to learn that my imagined chronology for these insults was backwards. I first heard dipstick in the early 1980s, as my peers picked it up from Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. When I later heard dipshit, I figured it was some kind of folk-etymology/eggcornization of dipstick by people who didn’t understand what was so insulting about the stick part, and figured it ought to be something legitimately taboo. Then when I started hearing dip in the mid-1980s, I thought it was simply a clipped version of (depending on the speaker) either dipstick or dipshit, done by speakers who were too embarrassed to say either of the longer words. But I’ve come to find out that dip probably originated in the early 1930s; dipshit came next, in the 1960s, and at about the same time or a little later came dipstick. At least, in its insult sense. The literal meaning was in use for quite a while prior to that.

But I could still be right, you know. I really never did hear dip as an insult until after dipstick and dipshit, so I think it’s at least plausible that the dip of the 1930s died out, only to be reinvented as a clipping of one of the dip compounds.

All this writing about dips reminded me of something I saw during our family trip to New York City during the summer. We stayed in Jersey City, where we went out to eat one night with Ben Zimmer’s family, and Doug and Adam played Cut the Rope with Ben’s son on Ben’s iPad. The next morning, we took the subway into Manhattan. At the station, we were buying a fare card at an automated dispenser, and paid with a credit card. When it was time to pay, the instructions on the screen said, “Dip your credit card.” But the slot to put the credit card into wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal! At gas stations where I live, this instruction is usually rendered as “Insert and withdraw credit card in one smooth motion.” In my lexical semantics, that meaning can only go with dip if the motion is vertical. The same goes for the programmers of the credit card readers, too, I think. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they opt for the four words of Dip your credit card over the eight words that I usually see? Is this a New York thing? A generational thing? Who else has noticed this semantic broadening?

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4 Responses to “Dip Your Card”

  1. Citibank ATMs have used “Dip your card” for as long as I’ve used them–10 years? And yes, the slot is horizontal. I always assumed it was a Citi quirk, like the use of the robotized first person singular (“How can I help you today?” “I have 10s and 20s”).

  2. Stan said

    Dip‘s early meanings have to do with liquid (dye, baptism, immersion; cf. deep); since this sense of plunging downward into liquid has been sustained for its entire history, the word’s strong association with the vertical plane is inevitable. Could later figurative senses (e.g., dip into a book; be dipped into controversy) have made it easier for dip to dip into other spatial possibilities?

  3. Jonathon said

    I’ve never seen an ATM or card reader that told me to dip my card in. I think they usually just say “insert”.

  4. EP said

    Dipstick, dipshit. It’s that sound somehow. There’s just something about the “dip” part, the way it rolls out of your mouth (toungue, teeth and lips). Well it’s always been one of my favourites.

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