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How did this use of the word kicker enter the English language, and is its use localized to any one region?

An unexpected situation or detail.

Examples:

John wants to climb the wall, but the kicker is that it is thirty feet tall.
Here's the kicker: my sweater, which cost hundreds of both dollars and hours, doesn't fit. The sleeves are a good six inches too short... Here's the kicker to the kicker: I don't care.

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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Kicker, as in "here's the kicker", likely comes from poker. The kicker is a card used to break ties in hands of the same rank. The origin of that card's name (and how it is related to other kick idioms) is more difficult to determine.

Ngrams, however dubious, seems to suggest that the idiom is relatively recent:

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Poker has a rich history of slang, and several other objective cards have specific names such as river, turn, et al. Other poker related idioms include up the ante, play your cards right, raise the stakes, wild card, and others.

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It may also be related to “get a kick out of something”. –  Jon Purdy Jan 27 '12 at 17:03
    
It could also gain currency from association with "kick up the ass/backside", though I wouldn't suggest that as an origin. –  FumbleFingers Jan 27 '12 at 17:29
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The Ngrams chart is consistent with the origin in poker; Texas Hold-em's rise to prominence (and with it, the kicker), seems to parallel the rise of the word. –  MετάEd Jan 27 '12 at 17:40
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It's hard to say, but it seems to be a relatively recent phrase, originating in the US and dating back to the second world war.

Citations

  • The Field artillery journal: Volume 32, Field Artillery Association (U.S.), 1942:

The Italians rose promptly - all fifty - the captain at the head. Easy capture, wasn't it? The kicker is that a few minutes later they saw another Italian soldier coming to their lines, holding his pants. He was admitted and had to explain. This was his explanation: “Being the orderly of the captain you have captured, ...

  • Billboard magazine, 14 Oct 1944:

But the real kicker in the story came in when it was learned that Atlantic Refining, thru Ayer, has a contract to broadcast the games of another team over WTAM in Cleveland. Consequently, It is obvious that it will do all it can to cut ...

  • The best from Yank: the army weekly, Council on Books in Wartime, 1945:

for the evening, a black "velvet sheath, outlined in jet at its shallow decolletage." That's where the kicker is, in that "decolletage" jive. That means it's cut away, all the way down the front.

  • The New York times film reviews: Volume 4, 1949:

Robert Walker plays the wastrel with almost as much authority as Mr. Lancaster does his protector. The only real kicker in the story, however, comes from your own speculation as to how long Mr. Lancaster will put up ..

(Some later ones: 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1958.)

Note: most of these are snippets so Google Books' dates cannot be easily confirmed. One 1944 is full view and confirmed.

Definitions

Could this be from US army slang or a journalism term?

According to The Probert Encyclopaedia:

Kicker is American and Canadian slang for a hidden and disadvantageous factor, such as a clause in a contract.
Kicker is American slang for a clincher.
Kicker is American slang for something exciting.
Kicker is American slang for loan fees.
Kicker is poker slang for the card in one's hand used to decide a tie, the highest non-scoring hard in one's hand.

There's quite a few like "the real kicker in the story" and Journalism.co.uk's glossary says:

Kicker - The first sentence or first few words of a story's lead, set in a font size larger than the body text of the story.

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I think it has to do with the fact that a kick would make you jump from your seat. So, a kicker would be something that, given its unexpectedness or surprise value, would have the same effect.

I don't think the term originates from poker, but instead that poker borrowed the term from a more general meaning.

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From 1903: Ef there's anything that gums up the cards of life, it's a kicker. That was probably before "Texas Hold'em poker" became an established term, but it does indicate an early association with card-playing. –  FumbleFingers Jan 27 '12 at 18:16
    
Maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that cards of life in that sentence is a metaphor related to life and all its components, rather than an actual game of cards, and that kicker, as the tie-breaker it is in poker, could have been any other word and that its use in relation to cards of life is just a coincidence. Or maybe it was very smart play of words and I just missed it :) –  Eduardo Jan 27 '12 at 18:42
    
It's a job to say. Personally I think "kicker" in poker is more an allusion to the "lurking surprise" of cards which superficially had no value in relation to the hand. That's consistent with the dominant C19 meaning of the word, where "a kicker" was almost always a horse that sometimes kicked (which might not be apparent from a superficial examination). All I would say is that although we tend to think "mixed metaphors" are common, that's only because they tend to stand out and be noticed. That one already had "gums up"; it seems a bit unlikely there were three metaphors in one statement. –  FumbleFingers Jan 27 '12 at 19:04
    
For what it's worth (well, not much), the speaker of the 1903 quote is a Texas citizen. Another short story in that cowboy book contains a lot of [stud-]poker. –  Hugo Jan 27 '12 at 22:04
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