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This link claims that one cannot be sure of origin of this phrase. Three explanations are given here, but they are not very convincing (I am not a native speaker).

In one of our newspapers, someone gives an explanation. Apparently,

Duke of Wellington, the man who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, though quite the ladies man, wasn’t really much to look at. The most prominent feature of his not-so-handsome face was his rather long nose. The officers and the men who served beneath him began to affectionately refer to any nose which was unusually long as ‘duke’. With the passage of time, this word began to be used to refer to any nose; of whatever size. Since human fists are notorious to be employed in fights to put a ‘duke’ out of joints, fists began to be called ‘duke buster’. Soon, the word ‘buster’ was dropped, and everyone started referring to fists as ‘dukes’.

This sounds like a great story, but he did not cite any references. Since this explanation is so very different from many others available on-line, I wonder if there is some reliable reference in support of his claim.

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I have no quotable source for this, so I won't make it an answer, but for some reason I remember reading that the origin is something like "fists = hands = forks = Duke of Yorks = Dukes." Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing whether it's just something the writer made up. –  user867 Nov 30 '12 at 6:18
    
Back in the old days when kings led their troops in battle, they utilized their brothers to form the vanguard, and thus was born the phrase, "Put up your dukes!" –  user38947 Mar 7 '13 at 9:46
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"Put up your dukes".....How about that being a corruption of the French for "two" - deux so...Put up your deux - two fists! –  ron Jun 4 '13 at 18:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Tom Dalzell’s The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English says the word dukes for fists in “put up your dukes” was attested as early as 1859. Dalzell says that forks was slang for fingers, and suggests that forks became dukes by way of the rhyming slang “Duke of Yorks”.

Credence is lent to this theory by Albert Barrère and Charles Godfrey Leland’s 1890 edition of A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, which attests the very similar slang expression “put up your forks” meaning to challenge to a fight. (To put one’s forks down, however, was to pick a pocket!)

More corroboration comes from the 1859 The Vulgar Tongue: a Glossary of Slang, Cant, and Flash Words and Phrases by “Ducange Anglicus” (a wonderful pseudonym which loosely translates as “English dictionary”). “Anglicus” attests the verb fork in the phrase “fork out the tin” meaning “hand out the money”, used in London between 1839 and 1859. (Fork out is surely cognate with today’s idiom fork over.) This puts fork at the right place and time to make it possible for Cockney rhyming slang to invoke the noble Duke of York exactly as suggested by Dalzell.

However, the intermediate phrase “put up your Duke of Yorks” is theoretical: not attested in any text of which I am aware, which still leaves open the possibility of some alternative origin for the term.

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I believe Cockney rhyming slang never actually used the "full" expression: it was coined and truncated immediately, so it's not surprising that "Duke of Yorks" doesn't appear. I've not heard of fork over; fork out in the UK means pay (rather than simply hand out anything other than money). –  Andrew Leach Nov 30 '12 at 7:44
    
@AndrewLeach It varies. The rhyme can be used in full, or not; and sometimes one that starts out in full is later shortened. For examples of both see: cockney.co.uk/cockney-rhyming-slang, peevish.co.uk/slang/articles/cockney-rhyming-slang.htm, phrases.org.uk/meanings/cockney-rhyming-slang.html –  MετάEd Nov 30 '12 at 14:17

I wouldn’t believe that story.

The OED says under the regular word duke:

  1. slang. The hand or fist. Usu. pl. Also dook.

    • 1874 Hotten Slang Dict. 153 ― ‘Put up your dooks’ is a kind invitation to fight.
    • 1879 Macm. Mag. XL. 501 (Farmer), ― I said I would not go at all if he put his dukes (hands) on me.
    • 1894 Astley 50 Y. my Life I. 142 ― There were many officers in the Guards well known to be fairly clever with their ‘dukes’.
    • 1898 J. D. Brayshaw Slum Silhouettes i. 3 ― ’E could ’andle ’is dooks, an’ no error: the way ’e set abaht Bill was a fair treat.
    • 1952 Partridge From Sanskrit to Brazil 4 ― He can handle his fives or dooks··or hands, i.e. he can box well.
    • 1963 J. Mitford Amer. Way Death vi. 191 ― The funeral men are always ready with dukes up to go to the offensive.

The word dook means, or can mean:

A wooden plug driven into a brick or stone wall, in order to hold a nail.

And that might be closer, considering that fists and plugs are both driven into things.

But they don’t know where dook comes from either.

I wouldn’t believe that story, though. Seems too “just-so”.

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The Phrase Finder discusses "Put up your Dukes" pointing to Vocabulum; or, The rogue's lexicon, compiled from the most authentic sources, 1859 which has

DUKES. The hands

I particularly like the Cockney rhyming slang suggestion that it comes through "Duke of York" for fork, which was already slang for hand or fingers. The same book has

FORKS. The fore and middle fingers

and there are earlier sources.

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One possible origin is from the Romani language, which influenced working class slang in Britain in the 1800s. The root word is dookin, which refers to palmistry.

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-1 The page that the question links to already has that explanation. –  3nafish Dec 2 '12 at 1:38

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