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In their principal meanings, dike and dyke are merely alternative spellings of the same word(s), and have been since Middle English. The noun 'a dike' has had, since its origins in Old English, and in many related Germanic languages, two different and apparently opposing meanings. However, their interconnectedness may be shown by the fact that many earthworks called dikes (or dykes) have both a ditch and an earth rampart.

  • A dike (or dyke) may be a long narrow trench, or ditch (with which it shares a root), that is, it lies below the surface of the land through which it has been dug. Many ditches in East Anglia are called dikes
    • In geology, it is a near-vertical intrusion of igneous rock into higher strata.
  • A dike may also be an earthwork rising above the surface of the land.
    • Offa's Dike is a defensible earthwork built (or improved) by King Offa (reigned 757-96) to mark the boundary between his kingdom of Mercia and Wales, or to serve as a base for military operations. Offa's Dike has both a ditch (on the west) and a bank on the east. It runs for some 192 kilometres, and has substantial gaps; even when it was constructed, it was not necessarily continuous.
    • The story of the Little Dutch Boy who stuck his finger into the beginning of a breach in one of the anti-flooding earthworks ('the finger in the dike' has become a cliché for a small intervention to prevent a greater problem, although it is sometimes misused to mean 'a hopeless and futile intervention). It was used in a story by Mary Mapes Dodge called 'The Hero of Haarlem'. and published in her book for children Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865). (At least eleven versions had been printed between 1850 and 1865.) The fiction is less well known in The Netherlands than in the USA.
    • Different physical forms of dike are recorded. On the moors of northern England, a dike is usually a dry-stone wall; in Scotland, it may be a wall of sods of turf, as in the old ballad 'The Twa Corbies':
In ahint yon auld fail dyke, ['fail' means 'turf' in Scots]
I wot there lies a new slain knight.
    • In east England, it is most often a drainage canal, and on the Humber estuary it is a navigable channel.
  • The unrelated slang terms dike are not recommended in normal academic English, except perhaps in some Social Science reports. The etymology of neither has been satisfactorily explained.
    • currently, it is a derogatory term for a lesbian (homosexual) woman, particularly one who looks as mannish as possible. It can also be applied to heterosexual women who look like men. This meaning is commonly spelledf dyke.
    • In the nineteenth (and the first quarter of the twentieth) century, it meant, as noun and verb, '[to dress] with special care and elegance'.
In Greek myth, Δίκη ('dike', pronounced 'dee-kay', IPA: /diː ke[ɪ]/) was a daughter of Zeus and Themis, and a personification of Justice.
For a similar word, in its looking in two opposing directions as well as in its general meaning, see berm.