The Grammarphobia Blog

Suspect etymology

Q: I’ve been hearing the expression “suss out” a lot lately. What’s it all about? Did I miss a memo somewhere?

A: If there was a memo about “suss out,” then I missed it too. But I did some poking around, and there it was in my usual language references. Live and learn!

To “suss out,” it seems, is a slang verbal phrase meaning to investigate or check into or figure out something.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) suggest “suss” is derived from “suspect.”

The expression “suss out” originated in Britain in the 1960s, according to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge.

The slang dictionary lists several other usages of “suss”: a verb from the 1920s meaning to suspect; a 1970s noun meaning suspicion, as in “he was arrested on suss”; and a 1980s noun meaning knowledge, as in “they’ve got suss.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has similar citations for “suss” (often spelled “sus”), meaning “suspicion,” “suspicious,” “suspect,” or “suspected,” and gives published references dating from the 1930s. The noun meaning know-how or understanding dates from the 1970s in the OED citations.

And that, I suspect, is what it’s all about.

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