A correspondent writes to ask about the utterance 'She was very thick with the gardener', encountered in the Hercule Poirot episode, The Halloween Party. 'I looked it up in a dictionary and it seems it's an old-fashioned way of saying "she was very friendly with him". Then I saw another expression, thick as thieves (is it still used?) .What I can't really understand is how/why the word thick (usu. 'not thin'; 'stupid') came to be used in the sense of 'friendly'.
The original sense, in Anglo-Saxon times, is of material extension, where it's regularly opposed to thin, as in a thick wall. Then it came to be applied to density and abundance (thick hedge, thick hair, thick mist...) and size (thickset) and extended to thickness in general (where it's not opposed to thin), as in 'the cover is an inch thick'.
It then generated several figurative senses meaning 'excessive in some disagreeable way', especially in the phrase a bit thick ('indecent' or 'indelicate'). It's the sense of 'density of contact' that led to the figurative sense of being 'close in association' - in other words, being 'intimate' or 'familiar'. It seems to have been a late 18th-century development. And quite a few similes have since emerged, such as as thick as glue, as thick as peas in a shell, and as thick as thieves, some of which have become proverbial.
The idioms are still used a lot, but the use of the single word to mean 'intimate' is certainly old-fashioned now, redolent of P G Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh.
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And John Betjeman:
'Miss Blewitt says Monica threw it,
But Monica says it was Joan,
And Joan's very thick with Miss Blewitt,
So Monica's sulking alone.'
I've sometimes wondered how that sense of thick came about.
In Ireland, being thick with someone (pure thick as an emphatic form) carries a very different meaning, indicating that someone is being angry, antagonistic, stubborn or obstructive. Until I saw Poirot mentioned, I thought that's what the post was about.
In colloquial German you can be "dicke" with somebody, which also means you're friends with them.
Somehow this reminded me of using "tight" in the same manner, only referring to close friends.
Though that one seems a lot more natural than "thick."
I'm interested in your definition of the phrase 'a bit thick' as 'indecent' or 'indelicate'. I've always understood it to mean 'a bit unfair' or 'rather harsh'. (I grew up in Nottingham, England, but don't believe it's local usage as people from various parts of the country seem to understand my use of the expression in that sense.)
Note I said 'especially'. That doesn't rule out a wide range of other 'disagreeable' senses, such as the ones you mention. I imagine there's quite a bit of semantic dialect difference around the world.
Thick as thieves is still in my repertoire, though I don't think I say it very often. I have a vague recollection that somebody in my life — most likely my mother — used it a lot.
For me the phrase means that a number people (usually the number is two) spend a lot of time alone together — with the implication that they're plotting something.
Whilst on the subject of the history of words - I have been trying to find the winning entry for the Telegraph poetry competition based on the first 100 words from your recent book.
I can't find it in the newspaper or online! I wanted to read it. Where should I look please? Thank you. Julia Homan
Yes, it was published on 10 December. Here is a link to the online page.
I grew up with the phrase 'in the thick of things' to mean being at the centre of action. It is a phrase I still use. Currently, therefore, I am in the thick of preparations for Christmas.
I grew up with the phrase 'in the thick of things' to mean being at the centre of action.
Viewers of BBC4 in the UK are familiar with the political satire The Thick of It.
I think I could still say thick and fast for events that follow closely on each other. I certainly wouldn't find it archaic if I heard it.
My relatives in Ulster still use "thick" in exactly this way. Just thought I'd say...
In Dutch, as in German (remarked by CB below), you be "dikke vrienden" (thick friends: good friends)or simply "dik" with somebody, indicating close friendship. It's also used as an adjective in the phrase "dikke verkering", meaning something like "they're an item and they're very close".
Also, in Ireland, if you refer to someone as being a bit “thick”, it means they’re not that bright.
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