Become an etymologist for a day—help us with ‘Sam Tick’

by Mark Gwynn


One of the most unsatisfying aspects of researching and writing a dictionary entry is not being able to determine the origin of a word. The study of a word’s history and origin—its etymology—is just one part of the dictionary-maker’s task. Often the etymology of a word can be readily identified: it may derive from another word, a particular language, or the name of a person, a place, or a product. Take the Australian English word dunny (a toilet) for example. It derives from a British dialect word dunnekin (a privy), and is probably ultimately derived from a combination of dung (faeces) and ken (a house). How do we arrive at this conclusion?

An Australian outback dunny

An Australian outback dunny

A number of approaches are used in identifying a word’s origin. The first step is to look for the word (or a variant of it) in lexical reference material including dictionaries, glossaries, and studies of language. The word dunny does not appear in early lexicons but the close synonym dunnekin appears in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1895-1905). With the aid of online databases we can find evidence for dunnekin in the mid-19th century and evidence for dunny in the 1930s. The logical connection in form and meaning of these two words, and our understanding of the history of British dialect words in Australia, make dunnekin a very likely source for dunny. Add to this the chronology of the two terms (dunnekin predates dunny), and the common linguistic practice in Australian English of abbreviating a word, and adding the -ie or -y ending.  Based on the evidence, we can be reasonably certain this is the origin of dunny.

For a number of words the usual resources do not provide any clues. It may be a result of looking in the wrong place, or the word may be rare, or only encountered in speech. When we reach a dead end we often consult lexicographer colleagues, historians, linguists, and other relevant specialists. Today we also have recourse to social media; crowdsourcing has now become an option for the baffled etymologist.

Sam Tick

Terang Express, 15 January 1915, via Trove

Here is one such baffling problem. In recent research I came across an unfamiliar term: Sam Tick. It appears in a small-town Victorian newspaper during the First World War. The article is a series of journal entries by Private Garnet Rundle, describing army life on board a transport ship bound for Egypt. He comments that, on one Saturday, he ‘did some more “Sam Tick”, hung it out to dry on the boat deck, and had a sleep from quarter to 3 till 6’. (Terang Express, 15 January 1915) The term is used several times and its final appearance in the article confirms that Sam Tick means ‘laundry’: ‘Did my final “Sam Tick”­—on boat at any rate. Gee! I’m not aspiring for laundry honors any more!’.

Domestic routine on board HMAT Geelong, transporting South Australia’s 27th Battalion to Alexandria, 1915. Image: South Australian Maritime Museum

Doing the Sam Tick on board HMAT Geelong, transporting South Australia’s 27th Battalion to Alexandria, 1915. Image: South Australian Maritime Museum

Soldier slang is prominent in Australian English in the years during and after the First World War. There are several glossaries and word lists recording soldier slang of the period, but none include Sam Tick. No other major historical or slang dictionaries include it, and no evidence appears in online databases or lexical resources. The Internet is equally unforthcoming. So is this a word invented by Private Rundle, or a word so rarely used it doesn’t appear in the written record? Or is it just a bad day at the office for me?

I have considered several other possibilities. One of my colleagues suggested it could be a rhyming slang term. Rhyming slang is well attested in Australian English, but does Sam Tick lend itself to a rhyme with something concerning laundry? Nothing occurs to me. Perhaps it is a play on a word associated with laundry, such as a washing detergent, or a brand or company name? Was there a historical person with the name Sam Tick who, through some association with laundry, or via rhyming slang, lent their name to this term? My initial research has uncovered nothing.

The 12th Battalion  (including Private Garnet Rundle) departing Hobart aboard HMAT Geelong, 20 October 1914. Image: Australian War Memorial

The 12th Battalion (including Private Garnet Rundle) departing from Hobart aboard HMAT Geelong, 20 October 1914. Image: Australian War Memorial

This is where social media can be useful. Please help! Does anyone know the term Sam Tick? Have you heard or seen it before in any context? Am I missing something obvious about the origin of this word? If anyone can add to our knowledge about Sam Tick I would welcome their contribution. Become an etymologist for an hour, a day, or longer if you like.

Now it’s time for me to hang out the Sam Tick before the sun goes down.


4 thoughts on “Become an etymologist for a day—help us with ‘Sam Tick’

  1. I never heard the term, so this is totally speculative, but Chinese people are associated with laundries, at least in the U.S., and “Sam Ting” is an anti-Chinese joke, parodying the way Chinese-speakers might say “same thing”. The idea is that an immigration official wrote down “Sam Ting” when the speaker meant to convey that he had the same name as the previous (also Chinese) immigrant. There is also a Yiddish version where the Jewish immigrant ends up with the name “Shaun Ferguson” < schon vergessen ‘already forgotten’ (namely, his new name).

    Perhaps Ting > Tick under the influence of (laundry) ticket or its relative on tick ‘on credit’.

    As I say, just speculation.

    • Thanks John. Interesting ideas. A colleague of mine discovered quite a few references to a Sam Yick who was a Chinese laundryman in Melbourne in this period. So there is some possibility to a Chinese connection.

  2. During his own travels to Egypt, Herodotus heard that Psammetichus (“Psamṯik”) or (“Sam Tick”) sought to discover the origin of language by conducting an experiment with two children.

    He gave two babies to a shepherd, and instructed that no one should ever speak to them, but they should be fed and cared for them while listening for their first words.

    The idea was that their first words would be uttered in the root language of all people.

    When one of the kids cried “βηκοs” (bèkos) with outstretched arms the shepherd concluded that the word was Phrygian because that was the sound of the Phrygian word for “bread.”

    Thus, they concluded that the Phrygians were an older people than the Egyptians, and that Phrygian was the original language of men.

  3. Oh. I forgot to mention that “βηκοs” (bèkos) was probably just the child imitating a goat. The pharoah Psamṯik didn’t realize this, and went to great lengths to uncover the true meaning.

    I hope this story helps you uncover the meaning of “Sam Tick”.

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