The noble title duke, comes from the Middle English duc, which in turn is borrowed from the Old French and eventually comes from the Latin ducere, meaning to lead.1 But how did this title come to mean fists, as in put up your dukes? The short answer is that we don’t know, although there are a couple of likely candidates in rhyming slang and from Romany, the language of the Gypsies.
The first known use of dukes is in George Matsell’s The Secret Language of Crime, published in 1859 in which he glosses dukes as pugilists’ slang for hands. About the same time, Samuel Chamberlain writes in his My Confession:
I...landed a stinger on his “potatoe trap” with my left “duke,” drawing the “Claret” and “sending him to grass.”2
The most common explanation for its origin is that duke is from the rhyming slang Duke of York, meaning fork or fingers, and by extension hand and fist. From The Slang Dictionary of 1874:
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 invitation to fight.3
Another possibility is that it is from the Romany dukker, meaning to tell fortunes by reading palms. In 1839, Brandon’s Poverty glossed dookin as fortune telling. And Matsell glosses dookin cove as fortune teller. The jump from the palm to the whole hand is a short one.4
A popular explanation that is clearly false is that dukes is a reference to the Marquess of Queensbury who published a book on the rules of boxing in 1867. Not only was he a marquess and not a duke, but his book appears after dukes had already been established.
Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 672.
The Slang Dictionary, New Edition (London: Chatto and Windus, 1874), 153.
HDAS, v. 1, 672.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton