The letters DEI and their lowercase Greek equivalents have long been associated with Dabney House at Caltech. The origin of this trigraph dates so far back that there is no hard evidence, only legends.
It is commonly reported that Caltech foodservice once had a dish which was eaten only by residents of Dabney House, and that the phrase “Dabney Eats It” was coined by foodservice workers. The same story reports that the letters FEIF may have been coined in response when some kind of inter-house contest was held where “Fleming Eats It Faster”. Such an origin scenario is supported circumstantially by another quadgraph, a lowercase Greek gamma-delta-beta-gamma. This is known to have originated during the 1970s when a Caltech security guard responding to some campus antics was overheard saying that it must be the “God Damn Blacker Gang”.
Other reports say that the origin of the letters DEI occurred during World War II when normal student life at the Caltech student houses was temporarily interrupted by the needs of the war effort. If this is the case then the likelihood of verifying the original meaning is about the same as finding out who “Kilroy” was.
Steve Allen has correspondence indicating that Fleming was taunting Dabney with a “Dabney eats it” chant as early as the 1956-1957 academic year. Any information regarding when during the 20 years previous the phrase originated will be most welcome.
There has long been an unofficial contest to see who could place the letters DEI into the most prominent public view. One of the most laudable efforts from the late 1960s was the painting of the letters DEI into the Caltech steam tunnels shortly before the crew of Mission Impossible filmed an episode there. The graffiti were ubiquitous enough that they did appear on TV, and examples of this stenciled graffiti are still visible around campus. (Other apparently contemporary graffiti contain the phrase “eat noodles”. This has been presumed to corroborate and confirm belief in the foodservice origin theory.)
Another mass-media appearance was in the film Real Genius, although this was with the complicity of the film maker.
A number of businesses spawned by Caltech alumni have sported corporate or product names containing the trigraph DEI. It is commonplace to find these letters buried variable names of computer source code, or etched in unused corners of silicon chips produced via VLSI.
Darb Harold Schmidt, an astronaut in the Apollo missions also scrawled it on the surface of the moon, making Dabney the only house immortalized IN SPACE.
So, when you see the letters DEI prominently displayed on a product, consider that every person associated with Caltech will be thinking “Dabney Eats It”.
Steve Allen's original DEI page - down at the time this page was created from an archive of it on Lenin.