Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Brief History of the "Pat-Down"

The outrage over new security procedures enforced by the Transportation Security Administration has thrust the word pat-down into the news. Airline passenger screenings in the U.S. now involve full-body scans, or if the passenger refuses the scan, a full-body pat-down. While the TSA faces backlash against these so-called "enhanced pat-downs" (an unfortunate term reminiscent of "enhanced interrogation techniques" at Guantanamo), plain-old pat-downs have been part of the lexicon of law enforcement for decades.

Before the pat-down, there was the frisk. Frisk is remarkably old, as both a verb and a noun referring to the act of searching for a weapon or contraband by passing hands over the body of a clothed person. George Parker's 1789 book Life's Painter includes an extensive glossary of "cant" (the language of the underworld), and frisk is included:

Frisk'd. A knowing term used among traps, scouts, and runners, when they take a person up on suspicion. They frisk him, that is, search him to find pawn-brokers duplicates, turnpike tickets, writings, or property that may tend to a discovery.

Elsewhere, Parker includes frisk as a noun:

You'd snitch upon us, and soon have the traps, and fix us, in putting a lap-feeder in our sack, that you or your blowen had prig'd yourselves, though we should stand the frisk for it.

To translate: a trap is a detective or policeman; a lap-feeder is a silver teaspoon, a blowen is a wench, and prig means "to steal." Though most of this cant never moved beyond the world of thieves, frisking entered mainstream usage, eventually becoming a standard term in American law enforcement for searches of suspects' outer garments for weapons or other items concealed underneath. The stop and frisk is now an accepted police procedure in many states.

In the mid-20th century, a new slang term emerged in the U.S. for frisking: "patting someone down." The Oxford English Dictionary includes this expression in its latest online revision of the entry for pat, with citations back to 1953. We can extend that back another decade, thanks to the availability of historical African-American newspapers in the ProQuest digitized database. In these papers, getting "patted down" is frequently mentioned in reports of police searches and detentions, with African Americans bearing the brunt of the activity. Here are five examples from the 1940s:

1943 Atlanta Daily World 17 Mar. 6/2 Officer Nash said he patted Wilson down, searching for a weapon and found a big 45-calibre pistol.

1948 Baltimore Afro-American 20 Mar. 2/6 "Then they patted us down to see if we were armed," Miss Mack stated.

1948 Atlanta Daily World 2 July 5/2 Blaine stated that he raised his hands while office Bryant "patted him down." ... He said he was facing the wall with his back to the officers and that he didn't know which one had "patted him down" and searched his billfold.

1948 New York Amsterdam News 10 July 25/3 The $10 was taken from him when he was "patted down" by the police on the original arrest, he said.

1949 Baltimore Afro-American 10 Dec. 4/4 If you drive a new car, especially one of the higher-priced models, you're fair game for Philly police who pat you down like a common criminal even before they ask for credentials.

The phrasal verb pat down then became a noun, pat-down, to refer to a specific instance of frisking. The earliest OED citation is a court case from 1964:

1964 Calif. Appellate Rep. 2nd Ser. 222 345 The officer, in making a cursory search or 'pat down' of King for weapons, found two shotgun shells in his pocket.

The creation of the noun pat-down follows a typical pattern for phrasal verbs using down. If you're let down (disappointed), it's a letdown; if you're knocked down (laid out in a fight), it's a knock-down; if you're put down (insulted), it's a put-down. For some violent examples, see this Word Routes column on throwdowns, smackdowns, and beatdowns.

Both frisk and pat-down moved from slang to official usage, particularly after the terms were enshrined in legal casework such as the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, permitting police officers to conduct pat-downs if there is reasonable suspicion of a crime. The TSA's "pat-down procedures" don't require suspicion of a crime in accordance with the Fourth Amendment, which is one reason why critics find the pat-downs of law-abiding travelers to be unnecessarily invasive.

The "enhanced" pat-downs of the TSA have been the source of much ridicule over the past couple of weeks. On Twitter, these jibes have often been assigned the hashtag #TSASlogans. One such fake slogan, from the fake Twitter account TSAgov, is: "It's not a grope. It's a freedom pat." TSAgov has also made the Guantanamo parallel more explicit by tweeting about "enhanced rubbing techniques." The way things are going this holiday season, travelers will be thinking up many more sarcastic alternatives to the pat-down as they navigate the brave new world of airport security.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 3:44 PM
Comment by: LEONARD G. (allentown, PA)
Since I have become a paid member of visualthesaurus.com I have thoroughly enjoyed the articles on a daily basis pretty much without fail. They are informative, educational, and fantastically written. The articles alone have made membership well worth it. I do think the thesaurus tool needs to be improved a bit. The tool is fun to use and nicely laid out, but compared to other online thesaurus tools, it is lacking in quantity and quality of synonyms. I hope overtime the tool is improved, but as a package with the articles I look forward to what I will learn from the website each day.
Tuesday November 23rd 2010, 11:08 PM
Comment by: Cyberquill
They should add being water-boarded as a third option for passengers who don't want the x-ray or the pat-down.
Friday November 26th 2010, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Joseph C. (Santa Fe, NM)
The monosyllabic words "pat", "crack", "slip", and "set" are good examples of the type of words many foreign English speakers, including those who have a technical or scientific vocabulary in the English language, struggle with on a daily basis. These words are derived from Anglo-Saxon (Old English) and remain useful in this scientific age; however, they are confusing because they convey different meanings when used in dissimilar contexts.

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