LINGUIST List 4.351

Thu 06 May 1993

Sum: Suss

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Paul T Kershaw, Suss summary

Message 1: Suss summary

Date: Wed, 28 Apr 93 18:36:56 EDSuss summary
From: Paul T Kershaw <>
Subject: Suss summary

I received several responses to my query on the etymology of
"sus(s)" in the sense of:
 "I couldn't suss what all the fuss was for" (Roddy Frame, "The
birth of the true," 1984)
Two respondents suggested that this use indeed represents a
separate lexical item from "sus" in "They arrested him on
sus(picion)", but given the other responses, I am inclined to
believe instead that this is a case of fast moving semantic

First, the uncontroversial facts: twenty or so years ago, parts of
the UK had "suspicion laws" or "suss laws" whereby the police could
arrest any suspicious looking individual. It is my impression that
these were considerably more subjective and exploited than the US's
current arrests via "reasonable cause." At any rate, there was the
impression among certain communities that these laws were being
exploited by the police for civil, racist, or other nefarious ends.

Chambers Dictionary gives the following three definitions:
"suspicious behavior/loitering with intent", "(slang) to arrest for
suspicious behavior", and "(with out, slang) to investigate; to
find out, discover". The first two and the first part of the third
jive with the Suss Laws account. The last part of the last one
jives with my examples, and it is interesting to note that by
including both meanings under one heading, the writers at Chambers
are implying their opinion on the matter: the two usages are from
the same word.

Now the data:
"Sus" meaning to arrest is evident up until the early 80s, with a
play called "Sus" (ca. pre-84) and a song "Sus" from ca. 80 by The
Ruts, a London punk band: "You'd better come with us / Don't make
no fuss / They got you on sus."

However, in most of the data, the word means "to figure out", with
or without "out". My two data (the one above and the one from
Dolby: "I still ain't got it sussed") don't have "out" but this
might be because they are, after all, from songs. The Who's
"Tommy" (ca. early 70s) apparently contains the line "I got you
sussed." Most of the data provided by Lou Burnard, from the
British National Corpus, also has this meaning, including the
interesting constructions "street-sussed" (="street-wise"), has a
related meaning.

There are two possibilities: either the two usages are related, or
they're not. The evidence that they are related includes: that
Chambers lumped them together, that the original OED lists neither
(rather, "suss" means, oddly enough, "slut"), that Collins English
Dictionary lists only the Suss Law meaning, and the fact that the
British respondents seem so very convinced that the two usages are
related. This is all indirect evidence, of course, and relies more
on folk intuitions than on linguistic evidence.

The question is, of course, if the two usages are related, how did
the one I mention arise? I believe, looking at the data, that I
might have an account for this, although my analysis might be
handled better by a sociologist.

The difference between the Suss Law reading and the determine
reading is based on the issue of truth values and worldviews,
similar to the difference between:
 (1) I think that you are guilty. I have inferred it.
 (2) I know that you are guilty. I have inferred it.
That is, "The police arrested him on sus" means, assuming that the
police are being honest, "The police arrested him because they
inferred his guilt from his behavior/stance/location", while "I
couldn't suss what all the fuss was far" means, roughly, "I had no
way of inferring what the fuss was for, and so I don't know." In
(1), "You are guilty" isn't entailed; in (2), it is.

There are two ways that I can posit for this drift (think -> know)
to have happened, although I have a particular preference for the
first one:

(1) Cynically speaking, when the power forces in society say
something is true, it becomes true, especially in a totalitarian
society (which British teens, like most teens, feel is true of
their government). Hence, guilty or innocent, if the police say
you're guilty of something (via arresting you on sus), you become
guilty of it. In other words, "The Queen thinks you're guilty" =
"You're guilty".

(2) Humans have the predisposition (or so it seems) to believe
that innocent people are never arrested or believed guilty. Hence
the clause of "innocent until proven guilty" in the US Judicial
System (if people always believed in innocence before guilt, there
would be no need for such a clause). Hence, if you're suspected of
having done something, you've done it.

If this analysis is correct, and my reading comes from the Suss Law
reading, then it is impressive to me how quickly the drift has
occurred (that is, in about ten years, from the laws in the mid 70s
to the usage above in the mid 80s).

Respondents (I hope this is everyone): Bill Bennett (UK), Sue
Blackwell (UK), Lou Burnard (UK), John Coleman (US?), T. T. L.
Davidson (UK), Carolyn Heycock (US, ex-UK), Bob Krovetz (US), M.
Wynne (UK)

Paul Kershaw
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