Even though I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, I can oddly remember being in my carriage as a squalling toddler, and can clearly recall being a child way, way back in the ‘40s. And one of the things I well remember when I was around 5 or 6, a vision I could not shake, was that of licking Adolph Hitler or Benito Mussolini with my tongue.


I’d seen photos of those guys and they did not look in the least lickable to me.

But back then, everyone always used the word “lick” when it came to beating people at things, like wars and street fights and even poker games. And it was not only unappealing to me to think of licking those bad guys in WWII, I wasn’t fond of thinking about licking our enemies anywhere, even my own neighborhood kids. If they bullied me, my father told me I had to “get out there and lick ‘em.”

Say what? I remember thinking I would probably get revenge on them more successfully if I went after them with perhaps a large rock, and not my tongue.

I used to wonder if my father was endowed with an unusually powerful tongue with which he could dispatch his enemies, and that the young men marching off to war back then were equally well endowed. How often did I hear him and others say, “Don’t worry. We’ll lick ’em. They won’t know what hit ‘em when we get over there.”

My childish and lively imagination had me envisioning young American men in uniform chasing after enemies “over there” with their mouths wide open as they beat the bad guys down or captured them with nothing more than their all-American very tough and heroic tongues.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Oh man, this woman is some awful slow. Everyone knows what ‘lick’ means.”

Well, eventually I did figure out that “lick” meant to win or to beat. Not to slobber on someone with one’s tongue. Yucko. How very seriously gross. But really, I was a kid and to a kid, a tongue is a tongue and licking is, well, licking.

But why? I mean come on, lick? I ran for a dictionary (well, I actually never run under any circumstances whatsoever, but I moved briskly).

I looked it up. And here’s what I found. You are absolutely dying to know, right? Here goes:

As a noun, “lick” can mean a musical phrase, or a small amount such as “I can’t speak a lick of Lithuanian.” It can also mean a group, or it can mean a robber or, just to make things even more confusing, it can also mean the person being robbed.

And one other thing (those of you who are easily horrified, don’t read the next few words,) a “lick” can also mean a prostitute or a stripper. It can also be used to define a drug dealer or the fool who takes the drugs.

When “lick” is used as a verb, it can even be used when speaking about stealing money, or stealing anything at all, or to sell or buy drugs.

Or, and finally we’re getting somewhere, “lick” can be used when one beats up on a person. “I really licked that dude.” Smashing, pounding, punching, slapping — all can be substituted with the word “lick.”

Basically, “lick” in the slang vernacular, means to defeat. Remember that old Timex commercial where a watch was smashed or drowned, and John Cameron Swayze intoned, “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking”?

Me too.

But I cannot find the derivation of the word, why it began to be used in ways other than to devour an ice cream cone. I’d love to know that. Thinking about the word “lick” as it applies to a lollipop or cone is a whole lot more attractive than imagining people licking Hitler or Stalin or Vlad the Impaler or Bonnie Parker or Genghis Kahn or even a few unsavory characters in today’s world.

I mean, their uniforms or even their street clothes were probably not very clean.

Furthermore, I’m sort of sure they’d never have stood still for their enemy’s sneaking up and licking them. I guess humans consider it a lot more sanitary to take these baddies out with more conventional methods—bombs, poisons, swords, bullets—you know, the usual, rather than by licking them to death.

What do you think?