Know Your Words

It’s a Bird … It’s Superman … No, It’s a Streaker on a Plane!

Cabin
You are now free to move about the cabin … with your clothes on.

By now you’ve probably heard about the nude man who ran down the aisle of a recent Alaska Airlines flight. There’s no word yet on why he did it, or what kind of answer he expected to his repeated shouts of “How do you like my pecker?” but what’s really interesting, at least from a linguistic perspective, is that almost none of the news coverage about this incident referred to the man as a streaker.

I say “almost” because, according to Google News, there is a headline from the International Business Times that reads, “Alaskan Airlines Flight Disrupted by Streaker,” but when you click on the article, the headline on the website reads, “Naked Man Runs Across Alaskan Airlines Plane Before Being Tackled.”

Hmmmm. Is there some kind of prohibition on the use of the word streaker that I’m not aware of? Maybe there’s some code among newspaper editors to avoid the use of slang. Then again, maybe the news organization steered clear of this slang term because it wouldn’t have translated to its international audience. Whatever the case, I think it’s worth beating a hasty retreat to the bookshelves to get a good look at where this word comes from and expose its history to a wider public.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so, my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t include anything about running naked in public in any of its definitions for streak. However, after consulting Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, I learned that the verb streak was occasionally spelled streek. (More on why this is important a bit later.)

However you spell it, Partridge has this to say:

By specialization, ‘To scurry stark-naked through a public place or assembly ostensibly as a form of protest against some grievance, or trying to prove a point, or out of sheer exhibitionism’; when streaking, the verbal noun., and streaker, one who does this, both noun and verb were, by 1975, colloquial terms and, by 1976 part of standard English. It was a phenomenon of the early 1970s, with subsequent echoes.

The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins defines streak as, “To run naked in a public place, outdoors or indoors, where a large number of people can see you,” and suggests the term streaking originated a few years earlier. It does not, however, provide any proof for this claim.

The word streaking was first recorded in 1973, but the practice of streaking probably began among college students a year or two earlier on campuses in California. In the most famous example of streaking, a nude man streaked across the stage of the televised 1974 Academy Awards ceremony.

Well, now I have some idea why the word began to enjoy wider usage in 1975. As for first use, though, this is where the importance of the alternative spelling I mentioned earlier comes in to play. The fifth listing for streek in the Oxford English Dictionary reads, “To go or advance quickly; to go at full speed; to decamp.”

The naked truth of the matter, of course, is that this definition of streek has nothing to do with the streak defined in Partridge’s Dictionary or Slang or the Facts on File Encyclopedia, but it’s interesting to catch a glimpse of how the two words might be, in some distant way, shape, or form, related. After all, if you found yourself discussing the nude man who “advanced quickly” down the aisle of a recent Alaska Airlines flight, people would still grasp your meaning.

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