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WORDSWORDSWORDS#12 (Sike/Psyche/Psyche)

Even though I am a prescriptivist when it comes to the English language, I readily acknowledge that language is always evolving and I am not reticent about stating that a certain locution has "passed me by", and that I shouldn't expect the phrase or idiomatic expression to be used in a particular way or pronounced in a certain way anymore. If you have read my previous "Words" posts, you can find many examples where I have given up. Even though the nuns who taught me as a child told me I'd be purchasing a first-class ticket to hell if I ever pronounced the "X" in the name "Xavier" ( the saint's name, after all, was Francis Xavier and he pronounced it as Zavier), I am a firm believer that individuals should be allowed to have their names pronounced just as they want. So, I run into many more "Eks-zaviers" today. I smell brimstone if I pronounce the name out loud though.

Still, some language changes happen because people are just morons, and there's really nothing that can be done about terminal stupidity. To wit: the use of the epithet "Sike!" to express the meaning of "I got you!" or "Joke" or "I just tricked you!" I started seeing the phrase turn up in my students' writing a couple of decades ago. I was baffled at first, until I realized that these poor dolts were substituting the meaningless homophone "Sike" for the word they really meant to use...which was clearly "Psych", a term regularly bandied about when I was young. "Psych" meant you had "psyched someone out" or messed with their head in some significant way. The derivation of the term is obvious since we employ the prefix "psych" when we deal with matters of the mind (psychiatry, psychology, psychological). Sike's root meaning, however, nothing.

When the word "Psych" began its usage in my youth, not everyone was sure of the spelling. In his classic baseball memoir Ball Four, which I reread recently (still great!), the late Jim Bouton penned the line "It was a good psyche job". So there must still have been a debate in 1970 as to whether there was an "e" at the end of "Psych". But since there was already a meaningful term "psyche" (two syllables with a long "e" terminal sound), referring to the human soul or spirit, "Psych" came to be spelled as a one-syllable word (usually followed by an exclamation mark).

During the 80s, some students (invariably male cases of arrested development) would put out their hands and shout "Gimme five!" and when their buddy would try to slap that hand in an act of camaraderie or jubilation or confederation, the initiator would move his hand quickly out of the way (sometimes even adding a little "gotcha" gesture by sideswiping his head with his open hand as if he were parting his hair quickly) and shout "Psych!" Given the limited synaptical capacity of some of these nimrods, in retrospect, a spelling of "Sike!" or even "Syke!" seemed inevitable.

But now "Sike" is the dominant spelling of the word that began as "Psych", and those who learn the word today must wonder how those four letters came together to form their meaning, since the word "Sike" doesn't actually seem to have any prefix, suffix, or root that would indicate its origin. Of course, that presupposes that people using the English language wonder about the meanings of idiomatic expressions, and reader, we know that most never do. So, we get videos and memes online like the one that appeared on my Twitter (Now "X") feed the other day:

And, to be honest, if I use "Psych!" in my next rap video, I will be viewed as the nimrod who can't spell!


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