Q: How did “suck,” a verb apparently derived from an ancient root related to creating negative pressure to draw liquid into the mouth, give us the noun “sucker” for a foolish or gullible person?
A: When the verb “suck” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it usually referred to what a baby does at its mother’s breast.
All the modern uses of “suck” and its offspring—from the innocuous to the vulgar—are derived in one way or another from that innocent early usage.
When the verb came into Old English writing as súcan, it meant “to draw (liquid, esp. milk from the breast) into the mouth by contracting the muscles of the lips, cheeks, and tongue so as to produce a partial vacuum,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Old English verb, like the corresponding term in Latin, sūgĕre, ultimately comes from the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root seuə- (to take liquid), according to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
This root is rendered by the OED as sug-, and by John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins as seug- or seuk-.
Ayto says the word is imitative in origin: “This no doubt originated in imitation of the sound of sucking from the mother’s breast.”
The earliest Old English example in the OED (from the Vespasian Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 825) refers to drawing sustenance from things other than the breast:
“Sucun hunig of stane & ele of trumum stane” (“Suck honey from the stone and oil from the hard stone”). The passage is in Deuteronomy 32:13.
However, the next Oxford example (from the Paris Psalter, an illuminated manuscript dated around 1050) refers to nursing babies:
“Of ðæra cild muðe, þe meolc sucað, þu byst hered” (“From the mouths of children who suck milk you are praised”). Matthew 21:16.
When the noun “suck” showed up in the Middle Ages, it similarly referred to “the action or an act of sucking milk from the breast,” according to the OED.
The dictionary’s first example for the noun is from one of the two St. Gregory documents in the Vernon Manuscript (1390-1400), written in the West Midland dialect of Middle English:
“Whon heo hedde iȝiue þe child a souke” (“When she had given the child suck”).
Around the same time, the noun “sucker” appeared in the sense of “suckling” (a term that showed up in the 15th century). The first citation in the OED is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1384:
“Forsothe Philip, his euen souker, transferride the body” (“Forsooth Philip, a fellow suckling [a friend from infancy], transported the body”). We’ve expanded the citation, a passage found in 2 Maccabees 9:29.
Most of the negative senses arising from “suck” showed up in the 19th and 20th centuries, though a few appeared earlier, including to “suck” money from someone (circa 1380), “suck” the blood from someone (to exhaust or drain, 1583), and “suck” someone dry (to exhaust, 1592).
The sense of “sucker” you’re asking about (a gullible person who’s easy to deceive) originated in North America in the early 19th century, according to Ayto’s etymological dictionary.
Ayto defines it as “someone as naive as an unweaned child.” And the language writer Hugh Rawson says in Wicked Words that it refers to “one who has all the smarts of an unweaned animal.”
The first example in the OED is from the May 29, 1838, issue of the Patriot, a newspaper in Toronto:
“It’s true that pigs has their troubles like humans … constables catches ’em, dogs bites ’em, and pigs is sometimes as done-over suckers as men.”
The use of “sucker” as a dupe or patsy may also have been influenced by the somewhat earlier use of the word for a sweet, such as a lollipop.
The dictionary’s first citation for this sense is from Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823), by Edward Moor: “Suckers, a longish sort of a sweety.”
In the 1840s, the phrasal verb “suck in” came to mean to cheat or deceive. The dictionary’s first example is from Frontier Life, an 1842 collection of sketches by Caroline M. Kirkland:
“I a’n’t bound to drive nobody in the middle of the night … so don’t you try to suck me in there.”
Later, the expression “suck up to” came to mean curry favor with or toady to. The first Oxford example is from an 1860 slang dictionary written by John Camden Hotten:
“Suck up, ‘to suck up to a person’ to insinuate oneself into his good graces.” The OED says the term originated as schoolboy slang.
A couple of decades later, “suck” showed up in writing in the cunnilingus and fellatio sense.
The Pearl, a pornographic monthly, used the word repeatedly in both senses during the 18 months that it published in 1879 and 1880.
Here’s an example from the October 1879 issue: “How nice it feels to have one’s prick sucked.”
The OED is a laggard in recording this sense. The dictionary’s earliest example is a 1928 citation in A. W. Read’s Lexical Evidence From Folk Epigraphy in Western North America (1935): “I suck cocks for fun.”
Rawson, the author of Wicked Words, says “suck” was apparently a taboo word decades before its sexual sense appeared in print in the Pearl.
As evidence, he cites the “watered-down text” of Matthew 24:19 in Noah Webster’s 1833 revision of the King James Version “for family consumption.”
Webster changed “And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!” to “And woe to them that are with child, and to them that nurse infants in those days!” Many modern biblical translations use a similar, “suck”-less wording.
A few other negative terms from the “suck” family showed up in the first half of the 20th century, including “suck eggs” (to be mean or irritable, 1903), “suck eggs!” (an exclamation of hostility or dismissal, 1906), and “suck the hind tit or teat” (to be inferior or a loser, 1940).
However, new positive senses for “suck” also showed up, such as “suck it up” (to work up one’s courage in the face of adversity, 1967).
The use of “suck” as a slang verb meaning “to be contemptible or disgusting” appeared later in the 20th century, according to citations in the OED.
The first example in Oxford is from the June 2, 1971, issue of International Times, or IT, a counterculture newspaper:
“Polaroid sucks! For some time the Polaroid Corporation has been supplying the South African government with large photo systems … to use for photographing blacks for the passbooks … every black must carry.”
But the linguist Ronald R. Butters, writing in the Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, cites a 1964 use of “suck” in this sense to denigrate an astrologer:
“Consuela sucks and anybody who believes this crap is crazy.” (Butters says the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower acquainted him with the citation, from The Herbert Huncke Reader, 1997.)
Standard dictionaries variously label this usage “informal,” “slang,” “rude,” “impolite,” or “vulgar.” The more disapproving labels apparently reflect the word’s association with oral sex.
Etymologists and other language types have argued for years over whether the sexual “suck” begat the “suck” that means to be bad, disagreeable or disgusting—that is, to stink.
In his 2001 paper, Butters argues against a “vulgar” label for “suck” in its newer sense, saying, “Little if any lexicographical evidence exists that privileges the etymological derivation of the idiom X sucks! from phrases involving fellatio.”
“At best, the connotations of fellatio that many speakers today sometimes assign to the X sucks! idiom arise post facto, when speakers speakers are forced to speculate about the etymology of the idiom,” he writes.
(The title of the Butters paper is “ ‘We Didn’t Realize That Lite Beer Was Supposed to Suck!’: The Putative Vulgarity of ‘X Sucks’ in American English.”)
As we said at the beginning, all the usages in the “suck” family are ultimately derived from the Anglo-Saxon sense of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. However, the use of “suck” in the sexual sense clearly colors the newer usage for some English speakers.
We’d describe the “stink” sense of “suck” as slang, not vulgar. It’s clearly gaining acceptance, but we wouldn’t recommend using it in most formal writing or speech.