Origin of "scam"

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Postby Guest » 08/25/04 10:47 PM

Another site I frequent discusses the origins of words. I was suprised to just recently find out that the word "scam" only goes back to 1963 in the Oxford English Dictionary (and I guess that they would know . . .).

Does anyone have an written citations earlier than that? I would have bet that it is older.

Maybe the scamurai knows? Bob???

Postby Guest » 08/26/04 05:15 AM


Just yesterday I read about the origin of the word "scam" but, for the life of me I can't remember where I read it :-(

From what I remember, the source I was reading said that it was derived from the last name of two brothers who were in the novelty industry. These brother produced and sold (maybe even invented some of it) stuff like x-ray specs, etc.

Their last name had the word "scam" in it -- and that's how scam came about. If I figure out where I read this info., I'll make sure to post it.


Postby Erik Hemming » 08/26/04 07:58 AM

I'm betting the O.E.D. editor was feeling lazy on the day they wrote that deffinition. It notes the origin as "obscure". But it looks like a pretty easy jump from the French "escamotage."

(And there back through the ages.....)

Nothing to back it up, but it seems pretty clear....

Erik Hemming
Posts: 128
Joined: 01/19/08 01:00 PM
Location: Madison & Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Postby Guest » 08/26/04 08:36 AM

Well, the trouble is that some of those "definitely-correct well-known derivations" are, so I'm told, wrong. They may be well known, they may be perceived as definitively correct, but it's all hearsay and conjecture.

For example, it's well known that "posh" derives from "Port Out, Starboard Home". Except that (so I'm told) it doesn't. But that derivation is commonly accepted as "definitely correct and well known".

So when the OED compiler says that it's obscure, perhaps its origin has actually been obscured in hearsay and myth.

Or, as you say, perhaps he's just lazy.


Postby Guest » 08/26/04 09:17 AM

Originally posted by Dave Le Fevre:
Well, the trouble is that some of those "definitely-correct well-known derivations" are, so I'm told, wrong. They may be well known, they may be perceived as definitively correct, but it's all hearsay and conjecture.
True. That's why I asked for written citations -- print is the only evidence the OED will take.

Does anyone have a Linking Ring cd set they can search? I looked through my Phoenix, and came up with nothing.

As far as whether the OED editors were being lazy, they aren't. They are as detail-obsessed as anyone, anywhere. If it could be shown that the word does derive from the French escamotage, that would be great. But it's been my impression that it comes from carny slang, or underworld cant, which would make a connection to French somewhat more tenuous than if it came from a field with heavy French influences (such as magic).

Postby Guest » 08/26/04 11:57 AM

I prefer written proof too, but alas I wasn't able to find anything in hard copy form, at least not so far.

The "Merriam Webster Dictionary" has the following for the etymology of the word "scam". (This is the official legal dictionary for American English).
Etymology: origin unknown

The "American Heritage Dictionary" also has:
ETYMOLOGY: Origin unknown

Next I found the "ONLINE ETYMOLOGY DICTIONARY" at http://www.etymonline.com/

Using this lead to:
scam - 1963, n. and v., U.S. slang, a carnival term, of unknown origin. Perhaps related to 19c. British slang scamp "cheater, swindler" (see scamp (n.)).
Again "unknown", but at least this provides another word to research. Perhaps this will lead to a written citation.

Finally, in my online searches I stumbled on the following quotation, which seems appropriate.

"It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature."
- Jorge Luis Borges, Prologue to "El otro, el mismo."

Postby Guest » 08/26/04 02:09 PM

As to the origin of "scam", H.J. Burlingame wrote (in "The Psychology of Conjuring", Hermann the Magician, 1898) "The conjurers of the better class were mostly French or Italian, and called themselves physiciens or escamoteurs ." Who knows?


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