A Language Log post by Mark Liberman introduces me to a very interesting word which he spells “dykes,” meaning ‘diagonal cutting pliers’ (“as a tool term, dykes is always plural, like scissors“). Now, googling “diagonal cutting pliers, dykes” (without the quotes) gets me 367 hits, while changing “dykes” to “dikes” almost doubles the number, to 706, so there may be a slight preference for the latter spelling, but both the totals and the difference between them are small enough that it’s impossible to tell. One wants, therefore, to consult a dictionary—but as Mark says, the word “isn’t in the AHD, M-W Unabridged, the OED, or Encarta.”

I think this is really strange. As far as I know, dykes is the standard American term for this ubiquitous and useful tool. In my experience as a child working on bicycles and later cars with my friends, as a mechanic in the army, and hanging around electronics technicians at Bell Labs, “dykes” was as common as a term as hacksaw or chisel. I mean, what else would you call them?

It is indeed strange; I don’t recall previously seeing a normal word of long standing, even one of limited circulation, that was not in any dictionary; that snub is usually reserved for recent slang terms. For what it’s worth, this site says “The diagonal cutting pliers, commonly called ‘diagonals’ or ‘dikes’…”, which suggests a shortening of diagonal and would seem to support the spelling with i. But one JAX in this discussion says “Dykes was the surname of the guy who invented the best of its time wire cutters. ‘side Dykes’ was the name of the later diagonal model.” Until the lexicographers take note of this neglected lexical item and settle on an etymology, you can pick whichever spelling looks right to you and no one can prove you wrong.


  1. After several people wrote to me to point out that the “dikes” spelling is significantly commoner, I realized that I may very well never have seen it written, or had any occasion to write it myself.
    This may well help explain why lexicographers have missed it. However, Tom Duff told me by email that he remembers having seen it written (probably as “dikes” or “dike out”) in Popular Electronics in the early 1960s.
    I’ve always assumed that the term is a sort of phonetic abbreviation of “DI(agonal) C(utting), which I guess would argue for the “di” spelling. However, for some reason I always assumed it was “dykes”, although I think I knew this word as a child before I ever heard the slang word for lesbian.
    I’m not sure how reliable these memories are, since the issue was never very important to me, but I’m pretty sure that I remember encountering this tool, referred to as dykes/dikes, in my father’s toolbox and in the toolboxes of friend’s fathers or big brothers, by the time I was 6 or 8 years old, i.e. in the middle 1950s.

  2. “Diags” on its own gets a few google hits as well, from which dikes is an easy assimilation.

  3. “What else would you call them?” I used to call them “wire cutters”.

  4. “What else would you call them?” I used to call them “wire cutters”.
    From a functional point of view, I guess that you could call dykes “wire cutters”, just as you could call a shovel a “post hole digger”. But in the usage I’m familiar with, wire cutters are a different (and more specialized) tool, just as a post hole digger is.

  5. Rupert Goodwins says

    The verb ‘to dike’ is documented in the Jargon File, which is a near-canonical collection of hacker (as in computer geek, rather than digital vandal) slang maintained since the early 1970s. It’s a fascinating document of considerable linguistic playfulness, and I know from first-hand experience that many of the terms have seen widespread use within the industry.
    “dike: vt.
    To remove or disable a portion of something, as a wire from a computer or a subroutine from a program. A standard slogan is “When in doubt, dike it out”. (The implication is that it is usually more effective to attack software problems by reducing complexity than by increasing it.) The word ‘dikes’ is widely used to mean ‘diagonal cutters’, a kind of wire cutter. To ‘dike something out’ means to use such cutters to remove something. Indeed, the TMRC Dictionary defined dike as “to attack with dikes”. Among hackers this term has been metaphorically extended to informational objects such as sections of code.”


  6. I’d call those side cutters.

  7. Andrew Dunbar says

    Another word I can’t find in any dictionary seems more common to me: cruft
    It’s not in my Shorter Oxford or my Macquarie. It’s not on the online Collins, Merriam-Webster, or Encarta. It’s not even on etymonline or WordOrigins. It is in the Jargon File.
    Is it just me or is this an accepted word outside hacker circles? Though I’m a hacker I wasn’t aware this word was special until a few days ago and thought everybody used it. Any ideas?

  8. “When in doubt, dyke it out.”

  9. Andrew: I think it’s just a hacker word. I’ve seen it occasionally, but have no clear idea of what it means. I assumed it was some kind of passing jargon that will be gone in ten years, and I’d guess the lexicographers assume the same thing; if it sticks around, it will get into the dictionaries. The odd thing about dikes/dykes is that the word has been around for some time and is (apparently) the normal way of naming its referent, and yet it’s been ignored.

  10. I have known cruft and its adjective crufty since my freshman year at MIT; that would be 1974. Sadly, my house is full of it.

  11. Huh. So what does it mean?

  12. The jargon file discusses it, but everything it says about ‘cruft’ looks off to me. One meaning of cruft is dusty grime (or greasy dust?), as the accumulation around unscrubbed bases of faucets. In software it refers to the accumulation of tiny bits of badness created by years of somewhat casual maintenance. As with dust, cruft leaves you no one horrid thing to point at, yet the accumulation of vast quantities of tiny badness can be a big bad thing. One rewrites entire modules purely to eliminate cruft.

  13. My experience matches ACW’s. No surprise as he and I have moved in overlapping circles over the past thirty years. This background also makes me suspicious of recent (i.e., post-GLS) edits to the jargon file. They may explain why some of the definitions seem off.
    As the entry points out, ‘cruft’ was in the TMRC dictionary, which is about as old as we are. Limited to an engineering subculture perhaps, but neither recent nor ephemeral.

  14. All these years later, “dikes” seems to be still absent from dictionaries. This tool discussion thread from 2016 raises the issue of the mysterious term, with poster sgtmac plumping for “a portmanteau of ‘Diagonal CutterS'” as its origin.

  15. Absent from professional general dictionaries. Wiktionary now has it, added on 25 May 2022 to the entry dikes and on 20 February 2023 to dykes — astonishingly late for a venerable techie term. A few slang dictionaries have copied it out of the Jargon File. And Google Books (in its infancy in 2005, as Mark Liberman also noted) can now find it in specialized dictionaries, Aircraft Technical Dictionary (1980) and NFPA’s Illustrated Dictionary of Electrical Terms (2004).

    Of course, it’s also defined in many do-it-yourself books and technical manuals. The earliest hits I got were in the 1950s, e.g. this in PS, the Preventive Maintenance Monthly (August 1952): “I have found that the metal plate from a discarded hotpatch is just right if you split the rim [i.e., make small radial cuts] with a pair of dikes in eight places—leave a half-inch standing in about four places, and straighten out the rest.” And then after that in United States Army Aviation Digest and Popular Science.

    Oddly, yourdictionary.com (an aggregator of other dictionaries) used to include this definition of dikes, sourced to Webster’s New World Telecom Dictionary, but now doesn’t. Maybe they stopped paying to license that content?

  16. I still find this astonishing! It’s not a common term (except in certain circles), but it’s certainly not marginal.

  17. Yes, it’s clearly known and used by several orders of magnitude more people than e.g. mongo, so if that got into AHD, then dikes should’ve been in as well. I wonder how much other vocabulary in the area of tools and crafts slipped through the cracks.

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