Chiseling, Palming off and Other Frauds
Bill Long 11/12/05
Second Essay, Looking at the Words
So I decided to enter into the linguistic world of chiselers and those who palm off, and here is what I found. Let's begin with the word chisel.
The word chisel, which is spelled about eight different ways in English over the centuries, means "a cutting tool of iron or steel ..used for cutting wood, metal, or stone, and worked either by pressure, or by the blows of a mallet or hammer." Its first attestation vividly fixed its usage, for it comes from the passage in John Wyclif's translation (1382) of the Book of Job where Job wants his complaint inscribed in a rock forever. "Who giveth to me, that my worrdis be writen? or with a chisell thei be graven in flint?" (Job 19:24). A 16th century usage from Cranmer: "As mallettes..chesylles, axes, and hatchettes be the tooles of theyr occupacyon." [Now we can see why there were no such things as spelling bees in Reformation England]. From Holland's 1603 translation of Plutarch's Moralia: "The Lacedaemonians..caused the said Epigram to be cut out with a chizzel. The verb "to chisel" only emerged in the 16th century, though most of the attestations given in the OED are from the 18th. From 1730: "The Stones chesseled and made smooth." Or, from an 18th century mining dictionary: "With this and a Hammer to strike with, we Chissel the Ore out of Loughs in Pipe Works."
But then, sometime early in the 19th century, and the OED tells us that the history is obscure, a colloquial use of chisel or chizzle, meaning to defraud, emerged. This interesting note is in the OED: "Its use at Winchester College in 1821 is vouched for by the Warden of New College (the Rev. Dr. Sewell)....Mr H. H. Gibbs says 'quite a current word in England in 1835.'" We can almost see John Murray at work here, can't we, collecting scraps of paper and receiving letters from old-timers on their recollections of the way that words were used? In any case, by the mid-19th century, John Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms had this entry: "To chisel, to cheat, swindle (comp. To gouge), a Western word..'have chiselled the people of California out of a million of dollars.'" And then the word chiseller/chiseler, which also pointed to a stoneworker, could be used by early in the 20th century to denote a swindler. "You know I won the toss. We tossed up which should tell and I won. You are a chiseller."
Bartlett's reference to gouging as synonymous with chiseling made me turn to this word. A gouge is a sort of specialized chisel, having a concave blade for cutting rounded grooves or holes in wood. It has a specialized meaning in surgery, too. The tool usage goes back to the 15th century. But the use of gouge as a cheat or swindle or to cheat or swindle is pure American. From 1845: "This is a clean, plain gouge of this sum out of the people's strong box." Or, as a verb, from Bret Harte (1885): "He's regularly gouged me in that ere horsehair spekilation." I don't know if there is any significance in the fact that gouge--meaning "to swindle"--emerged out of the American experience. Why wasn't chisel sufficient?
But once we enter into the world of palming off we meet such a rich variety of other words that some of them can only be indicated here: topping, slurring, slabbing, cogging, slyding, foysting and fobbing. The world of gaming, of cards and dice, was the world that gave us most of these words. Let's begin with palming and palm.
The first usage of palm as a verb is "to conceal in the palm; to deceive." And, as early as 1680 we have this sentence: "He palms them as much as he can, nimbly passing the last Card." From 1755: "The warder...watches that the prisoner does not 'palm' anything--in other words practice some legerdemain trick to conceal any contraband article." But just because we have the verb to palm doesn't mean that it is easy to "palm" a card. From an 1882 Saturday Review: "You may show a dozen men how to 'palm' a card, yet not one of them will be able to do it."
But palm had a wider reach than simply what you could do with cards. From Phillips's New World of Words (1706) comes the following: "To palm, to juggle in one's Hand; to cog or cheat at Dice." And then, an earlier quotation: "I think in my Conscience he's Palming and Topping in my Belly." And then, using the noun form, we have from 1671: "When late at night and the company grows thin and your eyes dim with watching then is the time for false Dice to be put on the ignorant then also is there a security in Palming, Tobping, Slurring, etc. One entry talks about the palming by Religious Juglers (a "juggler" was used much more broadly than we are wont to use it now, and meant "one who entertains or amuses people by stories, songs, buffoonery, tricks, etc.") and another speaks of people who are "fond of palming or conjuring."
Before we get to the legal meaning of palming off, it might be helpful to follow the thread on some of these other words. The next essay does this.