Another day, another phrase to dig around for the meaning. Thinking about old Popeye shows and even older Golden Age movies, when it was time to fight, they would never raise their hands, but always “put up their dukes.” What in the…? What does that even mean? Ding ding ding! Etymology time!
Put up your dukes.
There are a couple main possibles roots for this phrase.
1. It derives from the Cockney rhyming slang – Duke of Yorks = forks = fingers. At first , this seems rather unlikely. The earliest citation of Duke of York as rhyming slang (1874) lists it as meaning walk. Also, the link between forks and fingers seems tenuous at best. There is a clear link though – forks had been a slang term for fingers/hands for many years by 1859. It is recorded as slang for pickpocket in Nathan Bailey’s, An universal etymological English dictionary, 1737. The terms fork-out (or over or up), meaning pay money come from a similar source and are recorded by 1831.
2. It is suggested to be of Romany origin. This belief comes from the Romany word dookin, meaning fortune telling or palmistry. The palmistry association does link dooking with hands, but, that aside, the evidence to support the Romany source isn’t very strong.