Language Corner

The story behind the hockey term ‘deke’

January 29, 2018
Image by Nottingham Trent University via Flickr.

This is a column about deception.

A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks discussed his belief that there were, in effect, two different kinds of White House: “I sometimes wonder if the Invisible White House has learned to use the Potemkin White House to deke us while it changes the country.”

“Deke” is an unusual word, though you might figure out its meaning from the context. In the Brooks column, it was also an unusual juxtaposition of (possibly false) history and hockey.

From archives: “Journalistic carelessness caused the project to backfire, and thus miss its target”

“Potemkin” means “empty” or “hollow,” though mostly in a political context. Grigory Potemkin was a Russian minister and a rumored lover of Catherine the Great. During Catherine’s 1787 tour of Crimea, Potemkin was said to have constructed elaborate facades, presenting a view of prosperity as she passed by, while behind the fake village things were not so rosy.

The truth of that story is disputed (fake news, folks!). Even so, it’s been more than 100 years since the phrase “Potemkin village” entered English—1904, according to The Oxford English Dictionary. By 1938, the adjective “Potemkin” was being applied to mean “Sham, insubstantial; consisting of little or nothing behind an impressive facade,” the OED says.

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That takes care of the facade Brooks was putting up in front of the White House, but what about “deke”?

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“Deke” has its origin in Canada, where hockey is not just the national sport, but an obsession. Signature moves in hockey, as in other sports, have one player faking a move to distract the opposing side. Then that player (or another) can move in for the kill. It’s often called a “feint.”

But in 1960, the OED says, a hockey player talked about a particular kind of fake-out: “On the ice, Moore is one of the league’s best players in the split-second art of faking a goalie out of position. ‘I’ve developed a little play of my own,’ he says. ‘It’s a kind of fake shot—we call them “deeks” for decoys.’” The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles Online shows that it took a few more years for it to be spelled “deke.”

“Deke” and its participle “deking” are rarely found outside of hockey though it’s occasionally used in basketball (“Lawrence ended the period by deking his defender with a crossover that led to a stepback 3-pointer,” which needs its own translation).

Merriam-Webster notes that Hemingway used “deke” as a diminutive of “decoy,” so hockey is just a copycat. And M-W curls its lip a little at the way Brooks used it. “Deke,” a note says, “has also checked its way into more general usage to refer to deceptive or evasive moves or actions. However, this general application of ‘deke’ has never made it past the defenders. It occurs too rarely in English to merit its own sense in the dictionary.” Icing call against Brooks!

A similar “fake” term can be found in football: “juke.” This showed up in 1967, not too long after “deke,” M-W says. It also means “to fake out of position,” as in a player who was “able to use his athleticism to juke out would-be tacklers.” M-W says it may be a derivation of English dialect “jouk,” which means “deceive” or “joke,” but the American Heritage Dictionary traces it to “jowken,” a Middle English word meaning “to bend in a supple way.”

In case you’re wondering, the faking out kind of “juke” has little to do with a “jukebox” or its contemporary “juke joint.” Those are American slang words that arrived via African or Creole slave dialects for “wicked” or “disorderly.” A “juke” was a less-than-genteel establishment where you could dance, drink, and listen to music pretty cheaply. They also might have other, less savory, activities found in “wicked” places. That might involve some “deception” of a different kind.

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