Playing Tricks

The expression ‘tricked out’ isn’t new

A review of the new “Lego Rock Band” video game mentioned one cool feature: “You can also trick out your Rock Den and buy new costumes and instruments for band members.” A feature on a group that revitalizes old mopeds says that they “have figured out how to trick out their engines so they can cruise at up to 70 mph.” Phones are “tricked out” with more features and applications; shoes are “tricked out” with buckles and bows; and houses were “tricked out” for Halloween trick-or-treaters.

In just the past month, vodka and science have also been “tricked out” in news reports. One television ad even featured a “tricked out” name tag. Yet a Nexis search of news articles from October 1999 elicits only two references to something being “tricked out”—one a boat, the other a car.

“Tricked out,” of course, means dressed up, decorated, or otherwise enhanced in a showy fashion. The term is often used when something is perhaps dressed up a bit too much—one definition from is “Putting a $2000.00 stereo system, 12 inch aluminum alloy rims (that spin in the center), and plasma televisions in a 1981 Gremlin automobile.”

Cars, boats, and other motor vehicles were the usual objects of the adornments. Oh, and prostitutes, too, who were said to be “tricked out” to better attract their johns, or “tricks.” (And sometimes they, too, were overdecorated.) Many of the UrbanDictionary definitions, provided by anyone who wants to, associate “tricked out” with prostitutes or cars.

The diversification of things that are being “tricked out” indicates that this informal expression is gaining traction. But its surge in popularity is actually a resurgence, and its derivation has nothing to do with motor vehicles—or prostitutes.

The North American Oxford Dictionary says “tricked out” first showed up in the late fifteenth century, “perhaps associated with obsolete French s’estriquer,” to smooth oneself. The Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the transitive verb “trick” as “To dress, array, attire; to deck, prank; to adorn (usually with the notion of artifice),” also traces its use to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries, and even quotes Bacon in his 1622 history of King Henry VII: “That the King … to blinde the eyes of simple men had tricked up a Boy in the likenesse of Edward Plantagenet.”

In other words, it’s a trick to make something—be it your 1981 Gremlin or your living room—appear to be something it’s not.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.