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March 1, 2007

Slang of the Week: have someone pegged (verb phrase)
categorize someone

Example:
Eliot pretended to be a nice guy, but Jeanine had him pegged. He was a creep, just like her ex-husband.

Celebrity quote:
“One Korean student, applying from a top prep school, got pegged at MIT as ‘yet another textureless math grind.’”
-Alwa A. Cooper in the Harvard Crimson

This week, I offer you an unusual etymology for a common expression. A few weeks ago, I wrote about my new favorite hobo book, You Can’t Win, in which author Jack Black recounts his life of crime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Black peppers the book with many histories of words that may or may not be true, but are certainly interesting. His explanation of “have someone pegged,” in particular, really got my attention because it was so elaborate. According to Black, the phrase as it is now used comes from an older meaning in thieves' jargon.

“The thief, to save himself the trouble of staying up all night watching a spot to make sure no one enters after closing hours, puts a small wooden peg in the doorjamb after the place is locked up. At five or six o'clock in the morning, he takes a look. If the peg is in place the door has not been opened. If it is found lying in the doorway, that means someone has opened the door in the night. If he finds the place is visited in the night he must then stay out and learn why and at what time and how often. He now has the place ‘pegged’ and plans accordingly or passes it up as too tough.”

So is that really where it comes from? Black spent many years as a thief and safecracker and was certainly familiar with the lingo. His book came out in 1926, around the time Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the phrase was first seen in print, and Black’s lawless experience predates his book's publication by many years. It's entirely possible that somewhere between the beginning and end of his criminal career, the original meaning of figuring out a robbery morphed into figuring out a personality. The only slang dictionary in my collection with a word history for this (Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld) quotes Black’s book.

 

What’s new?
This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American. He is way out, far out, man.” Translated quotes from the Oscar winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.