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Where does it come from and what it really use to mean?

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    The full OED has it first recorded 1915 under definition P4 how's (less frequently how are) tricks? - how are things? how are you getting on? colloquial (originally U.S.). Compare You never miss a trick (you exploit every opportunity) and How's your luck? (are you getting good opportunities?). Sep 28, 2022 at 10:34
  • How is this question "off-topic." while there are so many exactly like this on this site? Just see the "Related" panel on right side.
    – LifeH2O
    Sep 28, 2022 at 14:23
  • Regarding why it's off-topic, read the whole message: "Please include the research you’ve done, or consider if your question suits our English Language Learners site better. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic."
    – Stuart F
    Sep 28, 2022 at 14:53
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    @StuartF: Obviously as a native Anglophone I'm quite familiar with the usage / semantics of the idiomatic expression itself, but the little bit of "research" I did before commenting above didn't get me anywhere near the level of understanding that user66974's answer provides in terms of origin / etymology. And who knows? Perhaps someone else could give us even more insights if the question were to be reopened (which I've just voted for). Sep 28, 2022 at 15:20

2 Answers 2

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Tricks, meaning circumstances, one’s life.

(backformation from colloquial greeting how’s tricks?)

1930 [US] E.H. Lavine Third Degree (1931) 162: About an hour later, the sergeant came along and asked him how tricks were.

2000 [UK] J.J. Connolly Layer Cake 104: Tricks are good but I ain’t got time to enjoy things.

(Greens Dictionary of Slang)

Its origin is unclear, as noted in the following extract:

According to the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the phrase derives from either the nautical meaning of 'trick' ('turn of duty') or the card game 'trick'.

But from its early days, the phrase was considered crude, as evidenced by this 1924 reference: "'Well, Mrs. H., how's tricks?' His wife flushed slightly at the vulgarity of the phrase." Usage became prevalent in the 1930s, especially among pimps who'd ask the prostitutes in their employ how business was going ('turning tricks'), but the phrase was soon adopted by all the cool kids with greased-back hair and leather jackets...

…………..

The noun form of the Latin verb tricari is tricae, meaning 'trifles, toys.' From at least the mid-16th century we have trick referring to 'a trinket, bauble, knick-knack.' Farmer's A Dictionary of Slang, published in 1890, lists as current "Western American" slang a sense of trick meaning 'belongings, things, baggage.' For a phrase that is equivalent to "How's things?," it's not too far-fetched to think that it may have been influenced by this sense."

But the sexual connotation has outlived all others, making 'How's tricks?' a fun way to both show an interest in how someone is doing and mildly insult them at the same time!

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    Interesting. I'm familiar with the term "turning tricks", but "how's tricks?" is so utterly unfamiliar to me that (as an American) I assumed it was of British origin. Sep 28, 2022 at 19:27
  • @JohnBollinger - I've mostly seen it in old black & white Hollywood movies, where the speaker was trying to sound streetwise. So I don't think we can blame the Brits for this one.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 28, 2022 at 20:21
  • I'd never even thought about the origin of the phrase and certainly never connected it with prostitution but, if it started as a pimp's phrase, that would certainly explain why a respectable married lady would blush at being asked how tricks were. I would like to have an attribution for the quote though, it's a pity that the blog gives no more details.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 29, 2022 at 6:49
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Google Books and Elephind newspaper database searches turn up matches for the question "How's tricks?" from at least as early as 1873. From "How's Tricks?" in the Nashville [Tennessee] Union and American (April 10, 1873), reprinted from the San Francisco [California] Chronicle:

"HOW'S TRICKS?"

There is a doctor in this city who has a speaking-tube leading from the main entrance of his building to his office, which is up just a few flights. For several days past a smart young wag named Swartz has amused himself by calling the doctor through the pipe, and then profanely ordering him to set out on an excursion to Tartarus. For some time this fun was taken in good part until the fine humor of the joke no longer became apparent. Accordingly, one afternoon, the disciple of Esculapius provided himself with a tea-kettle of water, heated to about 210 degrees Fahrenheit, and waited along side the pipe. Pretty soon the old familiar sound came up through the pipe, "Say, Doc, how's Tricks?" "Tricks is better now—I guess he'll get well," responded the doctor, reaching out after the tea-kettle.

Elephind reports that this anecdote—sometimes featuring a doctor with a tea kettle and sometimes a lawyer——was printed in at least 20 newspapers across the United States (California, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wisconsin) and Australia (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, and Victoria) in 1873 and 1874.

from "A Big Yield of Cotton," in the Austin [Texas] Weekly Statesman (October 18, 1883):

He was sitting in a Pecan street saloon, with a broad-brimmed hat all decorated with beads. He also wore a regulation cow-boy belt and pistols, and on the heels of his boots wore a murderous set of spurs that seemed to be better adapted for stern wheels to a Mississippi river steamboat than to prick horse flesh. He was mer by a young man who seemed to know the fantastic gentleman, and he said to him :

"Hallo! Jim, whar'd ye kum from?"

"Oh, out west a right smart."

"How's tricks?"

"Well, stock' a lookin' well and the cotton crop are mighty good."

From an untitled item in [Toronto, Ontario] Grip (April 12, 1884):

Walking down York-street yesterday afternoon, I met Mr. Alderman Henry Piper. He was smoking a cigar (a most unusual occurrence), and a smile of satisfaction lit up his serene countenance. "How's tricks, Harry my boy?" I asked of that gentleman. "How's the Institute, and how's the fiery Gazelles?" "Bloomin" bet yer life" replied the great lecturer of animal life.

From "Trial of the Wilkinsons: Lawyers Descend to Personalities," in the New-York Tribune (January 31, 1886):

Conrad Loos, one of the depositors in the broken bank, said that he had a conversation with Alfred Wilkinson in regard to his property in 1884, after May 5 and prior to December 9. "Alfred came into my store," said Mr. Loos, "and I said to him, 'how's tricks? He said, 'It's an off year for stocks an I've got through and we've got our things in shape. We own water and gas stock and real estate and I am going to take a year off.'"

And from "Cheap Boarding-Houses: And the Torture Unfortunate Victims Undergo," in the St. Paul [Minnesota] Daily Globe (August 14 1886):

Cincinnati Enquirer.

"Hello. Jim!"

"Hello!"

"How's tricks?"

"Slow."

"Where are you boarding now?"

"On Seventh."

"Live high?"

"High h-ll!"

Multiple additional examples appear in U.S. newspapers throughout the 1890s and after.

A glossary of "Words from Northwest Arkansas" in Dialect Notes, volume 3, part 2 (1906) includes this entry:

how's tricks?, inter. cl. How are you getting on?

And an article title "Selling Conversations," in the [Minneapolis, Minnesota] Northwestern Miller (1910) gives a strong impression that "How's tricks?" was common in the breezy talk of traveling salesman in that era:

Conversation between Silas Weston, of Weston & Weston, Staple and Fancy Groceries, and F. Archibald Perceival, salesman for the New Fangled Roller Mills, on the occasion of his second visit.

"Hello , Mr. Weston, how's tricks?"

"Huh?

"I say, how's tricks, how's every little thing? Guess you don't remember me, F. Archibald Perceival, the 'New Fangle' man, eh?"

As mentioned in passing in user 66974's answer, J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present (1904) has the following relevant entry for trick[s]:

Trick, subs. ... 4. (Western American).—Belongings, things, baggage.

So the prankster in the 1873 anecdote from San Francisco may simply have been using tricks in the general (in Western American English) sense of "things" when he asked the doctor "How's tricks?"

As for the mismatch between "is" and "tricks," that may signal (in early occurrences of the expression) a speaker's poor grasp of respectable English speech of the era, or it may represent a jocular intentional error—as it does today among many people who still use the phrase. The specific form "how's tricks?" seems quite central to the idiomatic usage: an Elephind search for "how's tricks" produces 844 matches (including duplicates), a search for "how is tricks" generates just 3 matches, and a search for "how are tricks" yields just 19.

Whatever the precise circumstances surrounding its origin, the expression has been in use in multiple parts of the United States for about 150 years now—and the sense of the expression seems to have changed remarkably little during that time.

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