Saturday, August 22, 2015

Put up your "Dukes" - a Punchy History and Etymology of "Dukes"

Put up your dukes!

Early Use of “Dukes”

Pugilists have been putting up “dukes” (hands) since at least 1859.  The earliest known appearance of the word in print is in a Rogue’s Lexicon compiled by George Washington Matsell, New YorkCity’s first Police Commissioner:

DUKES. The hands.

George Washington Matsell[i], Vocabulum; or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, New York, G. W. Matsell, 1859, page 126 (Appendix: Technical Words and Phrases in General Use by Pugilists).  Another entry further down the same page also defines, "Fords" as "The hands."

“Dukes,” as hands, also appears in an undated memoir, believed to have been written before 1861:[ii]

I landed a stinger on his "potatoe trap" with my left "duke," drawing the "Claret" and "sending him to grass."

Samuel E. Chamberlain, My Confessions; Recollections of a Rogue, New York, Harper Brothers, 1956.

Another early use of the word appears in an account of what many consider the first, international “World Championship” boxing match,[iii] between the American, John C. Heenan, the Benecia Boy, and the British champion, Tom Sayers, on April 17, 1860.   The pre-fight hype was widely reported throughout the United states for nearly a year following Heenan's public challenge to Sayers in May of 1859.

New Orleans Daily Crescent, May 4, 1859, page 2.

The fact that boxing was illegal in England added to the drama; some pre-fight stories reported various other fights being stopped by the police; and Heenan himself was hauled in before a magistrate weeks before the fight, on suspicion of plotting to engage in an illegal boxing match.

Heenan's training routine, Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 17, 1860.

When the fight finally arrived it lived up to the hype.

Four-page image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

The fight, said to have been attended by the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston,  lasted more than two hours, climaxing in an MMA style free-for-all after the referee left the ring in the 37th round as the police reportedly closed in on the fight.  The fight continued, after a fashion, for several more rounds with the boxers scratching each others' faces, engaging in wrestling holds, and throwing each other to the ground.  

The crowd stops Heenan from choking Sayers to death.

The fight ended in a controversial draw shortly after Sayers’ seconds cut down the ropes and stormed the ring to prevent Heenan from Strangling their fighter to death.  Their motivation in stopping the fight, however, was suspect.  British fans had reportedly tried to disrupt the fight by calling out, "police, police," whenever the American had the advantage; storming the ring was seen as yet one more attempt to prevent the Brit from losing the fight.

Scenes from the fight.

Heenan’s supporters were bitter about the draw, since Heenan appears to have been close to putting Sayers away.  But some commentators said Heenan had only himself to blame for the sudden end to the fight; should he really have been surprised that Sayers team stopped the fight when their man was in a potentially lethal strangle-hold?

John C. Heenan, the "Benicia Boy" - Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

Before all of the mayhem, one writer noted that Heenan’s friends' called his left hand his, ‘left duke’ - perhaps an indication that the word was still relatively new: [iv] 

Round 6. – “Six to four on the Benicia Boy.” – Sayers came up this time looking as if he meant mischief, and walked, as at first, to Heenan’s corner, and there commenced the battle.  In a few seconds his good intentions were developed by a tremendous hit under the right eye, which made a clean crosswise cut of half an inch, let out a gush of blood, and at once puffed up the cheek.  Stung by this blow, Heenan rushed upon him, and, with another clean hit, from what his friends call “the left duke,” knocked Sayers down.
. . .
Round 25. – . . . Amid cries of “2 to 1 on Heenan,” the Boy pressed forward, and, after taking two light but well-directed admonishers that the man before him was not yet beaten, he succeeded in straightening the left duke out again, and landed the Champion once more upon the grass.

History of the Great International Contest Between Heenan and Sayers at Farnborough on the 17th of April, 1860, London, George Newbold, [1860?], pages 67, 71 (from Wilkes Spirit of the Times (New York), letter dated April 18, 1860).

When Heenan returned to the United States, he went on a sparring tour and put his “left duke to good use:
HEENAN on a Sparring Tour.

Great Times at Utica
Unbounded Excitement of the People.

Utica, Oct. 30, 1860.

. . . The next was a friendly set-to between J. C. Heenan and an amateur of the town, by the name of Supple, but his name and actions were great contradictions; still, he took Heenan’s left dukes all in good part, and retired with three cheers . . . .
 “Sparring,” New York Clipper, November 10, 1860, page 235, column 2.

Throughout the 1860s, the word “dukes” popped up in several more boxing stories:

Round 1. . . . Drumgo throwing out his left with all the impetuosity and strength of a young giant, catching Scotty a stinger on his potato trap, drawing the first blood. . . . .

Round 2. Both men came up quickly, Drumgo smiling.  Both let fly with their left dukes, Drumgo catching Scotty on the same old spot – his “tobacco chewer” – and dodged and got away cleverly from an ugly return, which missed its mark.

“Gallant Prize Battle at Richmond, VA. John Drumgo and John Stockey, the Contestants”, New York Clipper, January 26, 1861, page 323, column 1.

Still, when it did come, bang went both left dukes at the same instant, and back they recoiled like a ball.

“Sparring,” New York Clipper, March 9, 1861, page 371, column 2.

The winner uses his left “duke” with great freedom and precision; but his right is powerless for attack.

Wilkes Spirit of the Times (New York), volume 9, number 8, October 22, 1864, Page 117 (from Sporting Life, Oct. 1st; fight between Sweeney and Burns in the Manchester District).   

Brock, who rejoices in the comical cognomen of Old Slumbo, had been taken a “snootful” or two of Jersey cider, and felt his oats – he therefore called on Barney Farley, better known as the Woonsocket Boy, to put up his dukes, as he thought he could knock all the fight out of him in about three minutes . . . .

“The Ring,” New York Clipper, March 11, 1865, page 379, column 2 (perhaps the earliest known example of the expression ‘to put up one’s dukes’). 

[W]e are gratified to have it in our power to refute the same by publishing the following business-like document from William of Santa Fe; which proves that he has not “gone to California by steamer,” and that he is ready to put up his dukes with whoever has the courage to pick up the gauntlet he has thrown down.

“The Ring,” New York Clipper, February 3, 1866, page 338, column 4.

Baldwin walked to the centre of the ring with great alacrity, and faced Iles with his left duke well advanced.

Wilkes Spirit of the Times (New York), volume 14, number 3, March 17, 1866, page 35 (from “Gallant Fight Between Baldwin and Illes,” Bell’s Life, London, Feb. 24, 1866).

Having only his “left duke” at liberty, he could not defend his hearth position long enough, and sufficient fragments were rescued to give the assayer his cue.

The Druid (Henry Hall Dixon; who wrote for The Sporting Magazine), Scott and Sebright, London, Rogerson & Tuxford, page 77.

The word appears to have been fairly well-established, even outside the sporting press, by the 1870s. In 1872, for example, it appeared in an article about slang in a conventional newspaper:

So far as the prize ring is concerned, slang is not only freely introduced, but almost entirely displaces ordinary phraseology.  Perhaps there is good reason for this; it misrepresents things; it clothes with a sort of grim humor scenes that would otherwise be simply horrible, and throws a coarse vail over a picture, in itself ghastly.  

According to the pugilist, a man has not a head but a “nut” or a “nob;” not a forehad but a “knowledge box;” not a face but a “frontispiece,” or “dial,” or “mug;” not a nose, but a “proboscis,” “snuffbox,” “smeller,” or “bugle;” not eyes, but “ogles,” or “peepers;” not a mouth, but a “potato-trap” or “kisser;” not teeth, but “ivories;” not a stomach, but a “bread basket,” or “commissary department;” not hands, but “fins;” not a fist, but a “mauley,” “bunch of fives,” or “duke;” not legs, but “pins,” or “understandings;” not feet, but “trotters;” not blood, but “claret,” or “ruby,” in his veins.  

It must be confessed that some of the figures are graphic enough, but their figurative elements, including a certain comic vein that pervades them, prevents one not initiated from fully appreciating the brutality which they are commonly used in recording.  For example, when you read that “the Dumpling’s mug showed signs of distress, his two peepers having gone into mourning, his smeller and kisser being materially enlarged, half a dozen of his ivories sent on a commission to his commissary department, and the ruby all over his dial,” you are prevented by the grotesqueness of the description from realizing the abject condition to which the noble art has reduced the particular human form divine, owned by the Dumpling aforesaid.

“Slang. Its conveniences and universality – High and Low Slang,” The Louisiana Democrat, August 7, 1872, page 1.[v]

In 1874, the word "duke" appeared in a book of humorous anecdotes:

Nor do I know exactly that I would care to tap the claret, smash the smeller, upset the snuff-tray, damage the optics, close the peepers, devastate the oglers, smite the conk, counter on the kisser, spoil the potato trap, mash the mug, and generally macerate the mouth of Milton, to say nothing of demolishing his bread-basket and laying waste and capsizing his apple-cart; for, though capable of reaching out with my right bower and putting in my Left Duke – my terrible Left – in an appaling style, I have nothing in particular against Mr. Sandorf.

John Paul, John Paul's book: moral and instructive: consisting of travels, tales, poetry, and like fabrications, Hartford, Connecticut, Columbian Book Company, 1874, page 116.

An article published in 1879 used “dukes” twice without reference to fighting; accompanied with explanatory parentheticals – suggesting that the word was not yet universally understood:

Grease my dukes (put money in my hand).

He held his duke at me as much as to say, “I would give you something if I could,” but I only laughed at him.

Then he began to push me about, so I said I would not go at all if he put his dukes (hands) on me.

Lexington Weekly Intelligencer (Lexington, Missouri), November 8, 1879, page 1.

Origin of “Dukes” as Hands

          Duke of York?

The origin of “dukes,” in the sense of hands, is not known for certain.  John C. Hotten’s, The Slang Dictionary (1874), however, suggested a possible etymology; as well as the earliest known use of the now-familiar phrase, “put up your dukes”:

Dukes, or DOOKS, the hands, originally modification of the rhyming slang, “Duke of Yorks,” forks = fingers, hands – a long way round, but quite true.  The word is in very common use among low folk.  “Put up your Dooks” is a kind of invitation to fight.

John C. Hotten, The Slang Dictionary, London, Chatto and Windus, 1874.

Many commentators generally accept Hotten’s suggestion as plausible (if not probable);[vi] however, Hotten’s own slang dictionary published fifteen years earlier casts doubt on the theory:

DUKE OF YORK, take a walk.

John C. Hotten, A Dictionary of Modern Slang Cant and Vulgar Words, London, 1859, page 143 (Glossary of the Rhyming Slang).

“Duke of York” does sorta rhyme with “take a walk” (if you avoid the “standard American” R-pronunciation).  The idiom might also be an allusion to the Duke of York’s (Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany) military failures; he commanded several campaigns marked by fruitless marches, retreats and surrender, remembered in the rhyme, The Grand Old Duke of York:[vii]

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.
And when they were up, they were up.
And when they were down, they were down.
And when they were only halfway up,
They were neither up nor down.

If “Duke of York” actually did mean, “take a walk,” in 1859, then we need to look elsewhere for the origin of “dukes;” but where?

One candidate is an expression that dates at least back to the late-1700s and was still in use in the last half of the 1800s.  The “Duke of Limbs” was a fanciful “title” conferred on long-limbed or solidly built men; precisely the types of men who might be boxers (isn’t “reach” one of the statistics listed in every pre-fight press conference?).  The phrase was even used as a nickname for at least one boxer in the early 1800s.  Although the phrase is not clearly or unambiguously related to “dukes,” as hands, it is close enough to be considered a possible origin of the word.

Limbs include arms and arms are topped off with hands; “dukes” might refer to the hands at the end of a “Duke of Limb’s” long limb.  

          Duke of Limbs?

Dictionaries generally defined “the Duke of Limbs” as, “a tall awkward ill made fellow,” or a “deformed person.”  In practice, however, it appears to have been used to describe tall, long-limbed, lanky, or solidly-built men.  The emphasis in each example varies, from long legs or long arms – or both, to a mismatch between a solidly built upper body with skinny legs, or to a generally large or long size:

There was, in the Knight’s family, a man
   Cast in the roughest mould Dame nature boasts;
With shoulders wider than a drippin-pan,
   And legs as thick, about the calves, as posts.

All the domesticks, viewing, in this hulk,
   So large a specimen of nature’s whims,
With kitchen wit, allusive to his bulk,
   Had christen’d him the Duke of Limbs.

George Colman, Broad Grins, London, T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1802, page 72.[viii]

He had scarcely remained a minute, when the Ostler, six feet high, came out and told Teasdale he had no right to take charge of the horses, and made a blow at him.  Teasdale stopped the Duke of Limbs in fine style . . . .

Pierce Egan, Boxiana: or, Sketches of ancient and modern pugilism, volume 3, London, G. Virtue, page 537.

[T]he Clerk to the Board – a serio-comic gentleman, with a little husky churchyard laugh, and who has a pair of spectacles, and a pair of long shanks which are also spectacles – this duke of limbs holds . . . .

Wythen Baxter, The Book of the Bastiles; or, the History of the Working of the New Poor-Law, London, John Stevens, Page 5.

There is a song in Nottinghamshire, in praise of Jack Muster’s hunt, one verse of which runs – 

“Here comes a fellow, all muscle and bone,
Great Duke of Limbs! With a line of his own.”

An appropriate title, as you would say if you knew him, for he has limbs that would people  a street in Paris – not blubber and troufles – but literally, all muscle and bone, with a figure-head, and cut-water, in happy keeping with a goodly hull.

Sylvanus, Pedestrian and other Reminiscences, London, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846, page 254.

This admirable manoeuvre was made so rapidly, and with such precision, that Field-marshal the Duke of Limbs, (as the shepherd called him, he looked so like a ram on stilts,) . . .

Douglas Jerrold’s Shilling Magazine (London), Number 23, November, 1846, page 419; “Fables for Foolish Fellow,” The Examiner (Louisville, Kentucky), July 17, 1847, page 1.

A biography of boxer Ben Caunt (born 1815), published on the occasion of the centennial of his birth, mentions that “Joe Whitaker, an eccentric sport popularly known as “the Duke of Limbs,” backed a boxer named Bendigo in his first fight against Ben Caunt in 1835.[ix]

Something Else?

Michael Quinion’s Phrases.Org.UK discusses a possible connection to the Romany language of the Gypsies; although that theory appears purely speculative.

The “Duke of Limbs” theory may be speculative as well, but offers a degree of plausibility.

My Personal, Wild Speculation

My personal speculation about a plausible origin of “dukes,” as hands, is not supported by any particular evidence, yet is consistent with several circumstances surrounding the earliest known uses of “dukes.”  I imagine using the euphemism “dukes” to refer to a boxer’s fists as an American, democratic statement of independence; he relies only on his fists; he does not have a Duke as a patron or backer, as many British fighters did have.

The earliest verified reference to “duke” in the sense of hand, as in “put up your dukes” (after the American slang dictionary of 1859) is attributed to John Heenan’s, presumably American friends during his fight against Tom Sayers in April of 1860.  The second-earliest verified reference relates to the same fighter during his sparring tour of The States upon his return from England later that year.  Several other early references are also American, including Chamberlain’s undated memoirs believed to have been written before 1861. 

Boxing was illegal in England in 1859 and had been for quite a while.  There was, however, a thriving boxing culture in England, enabled, in part, by aristocratic patrons.  Over the years, many boxing patrons were Dukes.

Napoleon’s nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, for example, was a fan of boxing:

The late Duke of Wellington, in his celebrated letter to Sir John Burgoyne, on the “National Defences of Great Britain,” published some twelve years ago, thus speaks: “I regret to observe the decay of the good old English practice of boxing . . .

The New York Clipper, December 26, 1857, page 282.

Other Dukes, including the Duke of Bedford, Duke of Clarence, Duke of Portland, Duke of York Duke of Grafton and the Grand Duke of Russia are mentioned prominently in various British boxing histories. 

A report of one of the earliest prize-fights on record prominently lists “ducal patronage” as an element of a prize-fight:

Again in Malcolm’s “Manners and Customs of London,” vol. i., p. 425, we find the subjoined extract from The Protestant Mercury, of January, 1681, which we take to be the first prize-fight on record.

“Yesterday a match of boxing was performed before his Grace the Duke of Albemarle, between the Duke’s footman and a butcher.  The latter won the prize, as he hath done many before, beign accounted, though but a little man, the best at that exercise in England.”

“Here be the proofs:” 1, of ducal patronage; 2, of a stake of money; 3, of the custom of public boxing; 4, of the skill of the victor, “he being but a littlee man;” and all in a five-line paragraph.  The names of the Champions are unwritten.

Henry Downes Miles, Pugilistica: The History of British Boxing, Volume 1, Edinburgh, J. Grant, 1906, page vii.

I can imagine a brash American challenger saying, “these are my dukes.”

A poet, writing several months after Heenan’s disputed fight with Sayers expressed a similar sentiment:

Ballads of the Ring.

No. VI.

Charles Freeman. –(The American Giant.)

Written Expressly for the New York Clipper.
By John Cooper Vail.

. . .

Let our hero be praised
  For the best that he won,
And the tablet he raised
  For America’s son;
While England, with Heenan,
  Has tarnished her fame,
The birth place of Freeman*
  Will cherish his name.
No Duke, Earl, or Chartist,
  The heart’s tribute shares,
With Heenan, our artist,
  Who conquered Tom Sayers.

The New York Clipper, September 1, 1860, page 157. (*Charlie Freeman, the “Michigan Giant,” was an American boxer who stood six feet 10 ½ inches high and fought at 252 lbs. The former bare-knuckle champion of Britan, Ben Caunt, brought Freeman to England, where he defeated William Perry, “the Tipton Slasher,” in 108 rounds (over two sessions) in December of 1842. 

Although the word “dukes” was reported as meaning “hands,” in boxer jargon, in 1859, before Heenan went to England, the pre-fight hype started early in 1859.  The term could also just as well have developed earlier; any American fighter proud of their anti-aristocratic society might have mocked their class-conscious British cousins; the participation of actual Dukes in England’s boxing circles had long been well-known among students of the ring.

Makes sense to me.  You be the judge.

Full Disclosure

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I found one pre-1859 example of “duke” in a boxing context that does not obviously fit in with any known sense of “duke,” at least as far as I can tell.  If you can understand it any better than I can, let me know:

Kelly promises to be a very fair little boxer, but is rather too delicate for prolonged exercise of this kind.  He got on the Pot-Boy’s “duke” about a dozen times, and had the honor of flooring him.  It served very well for a commencement.

The New York Clipper, February 5, 1859, page 331.

In context, it strikes me that “duke” is intended to refer to the Pot-Boy’s head.  I cannot easily reconcile this excerpt with any of the other uses of “duke” or “dukes” I have seen.


The traditional explanation of the origin of “dukes” in “put up your dukes” may be in trouble.  If we believe John C. Hotten’s Dictionary of Modern Slang Cant and Vulgar Words (1859) over John C. Hotten’s Slang Dictionary (1874) (and I see no reason that we shouldn’t), then it seems unlikely that “dukes” derives from “Duke of York,” which rhymes with fork, which means finger, which make up hands – therefore “dukes.” If we remain wedded to the idea that “dukes” derived from an earlier, “Duke of [Blank]” idiom, then “Duke of Limbs” (an awkwardly built, tall, or lean, muscular man) is a possible alternate explanation.  The trail of logic from “Duke of Limbs,” to hands, to “dukes” is not much different from the now, perhaps, disgraced “Duke of York” origin story.  

I wonder what happened between 1859 and 1874 that resulted in Hotten changing the meaning of “Duke of York” from one dictionary to the next.  Perhaps he correctly recalled a relationship between “dukes” and a “Duke of [blank]” idiom, but mistakenly recalled “Duke of York,” instead of “Duke of Limbs.”  Perhaps “Duke of York” changed meaning during the intervening fifteen years, so that it actually did mean “hands” in 1874, which resulted in mistakenly suggesting that it had always had that meaning.  Perhaps he was mistaken in 1859 and correct in 1874.  We may never know.  

But we do know what happened in 1860 - Heenan fought Sayers in England; where "dukes," or at least Heenan's "left duke," makes its earliest known appearance in print.  I like the idea that citizen-Heenan, or some other egalitarian pugilist, dubbed his hands "dukes" in mocking reference to the British tradition of nobles acting as patrons for plebian prize-fighters.  

If you don’t agree –  
      you can, Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!
                        The Cowardly Lion, The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Published 1830s, written by boxing historian - no mention of "dukes".

[ii] Chamberlain is believed to have written My Confessions sometime between 1848 and 1861.  A collector found the handwritten manuscript in an antique shop in about 1940.  The collector sold the manuscript to Life magazine, which published excerpts serially in 1956.  Harper Brothers published the entire memoir for the first time later that year. 
[iv] The earliest possible date of use is likely sometime after the 1830s.  An undated slang dictionary, compiled by George Kent, “Historian to the Prize Ring,” and believed to have been published in the 1830s, does not include an entry for, “dukes,” in the sense of hands. See, George Kent, Modern Flash Dictionary, containing all the Cant Words, Slang Terms, and Flash Phrases, now in Vogue, London, Duncombe [undated (library catalogue entry lists it as 183?)].
[v] Similar sentiments were voiced in, Bailey’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes, Volume 27, October 1875, page 334 (It would never have done to have talked about fists, noses, mouths, blood, teeth, and eyes in describing a fight, or to have recorded, in cold blood, how one man knocked out another’s teeth and cut his knuckles to the bone).
[vi] See, for example, Michael Quinion, “Put Up Your Dukes,” (laying out much of the evidence of the early use and possible origins of the phrase).
[vii] Wikipedia (accessed August 22, 2015) (citing Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edition).
[viii] Colman’s Broad Grins was republished numerous times, at least in 1804, 1819, 1833, and 1839.
[ix] “Centennial of Ben Caunt, Great 19th Century Boxer,” The Bridgeport Evening Farmer (Connecticut), March 22, 1915, page 8; Henry Downes Miles, Pugilistica: the History of British Boxing, volume 3, page 47.


  1. Some further points, Peter.

    Hotten (1874) isn't by Hotten, but is a revision by an unnamed editor. "Duke(s)=hand(s)" isn't there in the last (1872) edition that Hotten was personally responsible for.

    Matsell includes the definition twice in the VOCABULUM --once under General Slang, and again in the Pugilism section.

    In LEAVES FROM THE DIARY OF A CELEBRATED BURGLAR (1865), published by Matsell, "duke(s)=hand(s) appears about 70 (sic!) times, in a non-pugilistic context.

    This would seem to confirm your view that the term originates in American boxing circles in the late 1850s, and quickly transfers to general (possibly criminal) American slang, all before it reaches England possibly in the (late?) 1860s at the earliest.


  2. I always thought it came from Polydeuces!