Friday, August 24, 2012

Technical Topics -- Talking about Cons

It is just hard to discover how con artists in the Regency period.  I'm fairly sure the current con games practiced in 1910 and in 2010 were practiced in 1810, even though I don't find references to them so much.

The Spanish Prisoner, for instance, is said to date from the late Nineteenth Century.  I imagine it was practiced, though, under another name in the Fifteenth.  And Sixteenth.  And in the regency.  Human nature doesn't change much.

So, what do we know about Regency Con Games and how can we talk about playing them.

Picking up general background stuff:

Mayhew's Characters, which is a generation later, but delightfully detailed and in voice

And more on background criminal behavior
Thieves Kitchen: The Regency Underworld by Donald Low

Grose lists several sort of scamming beggars, largely folks faking injury or war service and so on.  Those are some of the old traditions and accustomed cons.

The shell game is ancient.  It was called Thimblerig, played with three thimbles and a pea or button, is attested from 1825 by this name, though references to thimble cheats, probably the same swindle, date back to 1716.  The term 'Shell Game' is 1890, from a version of three-card monte played with a pea and walnut shells. 

So is fast and loose.  Don't know whether this counts as a con or not. 

The wikis here and here  list some latish Nineteenth Century examples that can't be applied exact and directly to the Regency.

My great sorrow as a writer is that we lack a rich, traditional vocabulary to talk about con men.  I've gone looking for scamming language and almost all the terminology I fall in love with is mid C19 or later.

Here are some of the words we can use:

Bejuggle, to get over by jugglery, to cheat;   (1680) To bejuggle and beguile the silly Rabble.   (1705) Bejuggl'd Mob! you are the Tools, That Priests do work with called Fools.  (1851) No matter how many‥thou may'st have bejuggled and destroyed before.

Burn  Meaning "cheat, swindle, victimize" is 1650s.  (One problem is the  C20 meanings may intrude here. c.f.  'Burn Notice')

 (1842) Our people were so ill-burnt, that they had no stomach for any farder medling. ...  (1808)  Burn, to deceive, to cheat in a bargain.    (1844)  Two negro burners were arrested in the act of trying to burn two Pottsville boatmen with a plated chain worth about fifteen cents.

Chicanery c.1600, from Fr. chicanerie "trickery,"

Chisel  Slang sense of "to cheat, defraud" is first recorded in 1808 as chizzel.  Origin and connection to the older word are obscure.  (Obscure, but in period and perhaps useful.)

Chouse "swindler, swindle," 1650s, from Turk. chaush "sergeant, herald, messenger,"  (Good Regency usage for this.)

Con  in the meaning "swindling"  Is 1889, Amer.Eng.  Confidence man is 1849.  Derives from the many scams in which the victim is induced to hand over money as a token of confidence.

Cozen.  To commit fraud, trickery" mid-15C  In use in the Regency.

Diddle "to cheat, swindle," in 1806, from dial. duddle, diddle "to totter" (1630s). One has to be aware of later meanings --  "to have sex with" is from 1879; that of "to masturbate" (especially of women) is from 1950s. 

Dodge   Common from early 18c. in figurative sense of "to swindle, to play shifting tricks." .

Double cross is much older than I thought, dating to 1834, from double + cross in the sense of "pre-arranged swindle or fix." Originally to win a race after promising to lose it. As a verb from 1903, Amer.Eng.

Fleece The verb is 1530s in the literal sense of "to strip a sheep of fleece" and 1570s in the figurative meaning "to cheat, swindle."  It holds that meaning to present day.

Gouge 1560s meaning "to cut as with a gouge,"   Meaning "swindle" is Amer.Eng. colloquial from 1826.

Grab 1580s, "to seize", often with a sense of "to get by unscrupulous methods".  The 'grab game' is a kind of swindle, 1846.

Gull.  cant term for "dupe, sucker, credulous person,"  with a sense of "someone who will swallow anything thrown at him." From 1590s  Still in use today.

Hornswoggle to cheat," 1829. 

Humbug, 1751, student slang, "trick, jest, hoax, deception," also as a verb.  

Jape.  early 14c., "trick, deceit," later "a joke, a jest" (late 14c.) It's been through several transitions, but currently means a joke or jest.
Jig.  "lively dance," 1560s,  A "piece of sport, trick" 1590s.  Phrase the jig is up (first attested 1777 as the jig is over).

Jink  To trick, cheat, diddle, swindle.   (1785) For Jove did jink Arcesius.    (1832) The gipsy, after all, jinked an old rich goutified coffee-planter.  

Mace  To swindle.  (1790)  Potter New Dict. Cant. (1795) "Mace, to cheat."  (1812)  A .‥party of inferior pugilists had been macing in the southern towns.  (1819)  I sometimes raised the wind by‥obtaining goods on credit, called in the cant language maceing. (1885)  Fancy him being so soft as to give that jay a quid back out of the ten he'd maced him of!

Mark. slang sense "victim of a swindle" is 1883.

Pigeon.  one easily cheated, gullible;  to gull, cheat, delude, swindle; esp. at cards or any kind of gaming.  (1675) Of Lies, and Fables, which did Pigeon The Rabble into false Religion.  (1785) They have pigeoned me out of my money.   (1805)  They mean to pigeon him, as their phrase is.   (1807) Having one night been pigeoned of a vast property.

To play.   To use or treat as a counter or plaything, to manage or use for one's own ends (like chessmen or cards in a game). Also, to fool, swindle; to play (someone) for a sucker: to treat (a person) as a dupe; to make a fool of; to cheat.  (1656) Some Wisemen, and some Fools we call, Figures, alas, of Speech, for Destiny plays us all.  (1879) You could have played him on a stranger for an effigy.    

To play upon advantage (obs.): to cheat.   (1668)  Your only way is to turn rook and play upon advantage.   (1826) Once it happened that the enemy took him at advantage. 

Rook. 1570s noun, "a cheat," especially at cards or dice. Verb "to defraud by cheating", originally especially in a game, 1580s.

Sham 1670s, "a trick, a hoax, a fraud,"  Sense of "Something meant to be mistaken for something else" is from 1728.

shark.  To practise fraud or the arts of a ‘shark’, parasite, or sharper; to live by shifts and stratagems. Often to shark for (something).  (1608) I name it gently to you; I term it neither pilfer, cheat, nor shark.  (1765) It is only slipping a puffer or two of quality at them, enough of whom come sharking to every sale for that purpose only.  (1809) Those vagabond cosmopolites who shark about the world, as if they had no right or business in it. (1837) Thou must hawk and shark to and fro, from anteroom to anteroom.

Sharp  "a cheat at games," 1797, short for sharper (1681), probably a variant of sharker

Stall.  Mid-15C as "pretense to avoid doing something." A variant of "stale" -- bird used as a decoy to lure other birds.  In the meaning of "evasive trick or story, pretext, excuse" first recorded 1812.  This sense entwined with that of "thief's assistant" (1590s).
"The stallers up are gratified with such part of the gains acquired as the liberality of the knuckling gentlemen may prompt them to bestow. [J.H. Vaux, "Flash Dictionary," 1812]

Sting  A slang meaning "to cheat, swindle" is from 1812.
The sense of "police undercover entrapment" is from 1975.  (It would be lovely to use in 1812 if it weren't for the C20 meanings layered on top.)

Swindler is 1774,  "giddy person, extravagant speculator, cheat,"  Said to have been introduced in London by German Jews c.1762.
"Stall" is still used as a pickpocket's assistant.

Thug  1810, "member of a gang of murderers and robbers in India who strangled their victims,"  In general sense of "ruffian, cutthroat" first recorded 1839.  (I have used this in 1812 with characters who would have contact with army officers serving in India.  They use it as they would a foreign word.  Kinda.)
 Trump. (v) "fabricate, devise," 1690s, from trump "deceive, cheat" (1510s),  'Trumped up' as  "false, concocted" first recorded 1728.

ETA:  Janet McC sends further era-appropriate terms and expands on some I mentioned -- shrak, mace, burn, bejuggle, pigeon, play, play upon advantage, jink.


  1. A very helpful post, Jo, as I'm contemplating a story set in 1740s with a con man as antagonist. That vocab issue is very real though. Can't use all our modern (for me late 18c onward) yummy terms. Thanks for all these links.

  2. Vocabulary is a real killer, isn't it? The whole 'crime lingo' in my head comes from 1930s Film Noir apparently.

  3. Now there's a story the 1930s Film Noir detective gets transported back to the regency time. Lol.

    Excellent post! And this is why there's a challenge to writing historical accurately when it comes to con men. While the vocab is limited are there certain words that may play close to the vest. I can't think of any examples right now but when I do I'll be back.

  4. Jo, one does wonder what a nice girl like you is doing collecting period specific con artist slang. Much more interesting than recipes for syllabub. Much.

  5. Hi Landra -- Now THAT sounds wonderful. Oh my. It really does. I just wish somebody reading this would pick up the idea ...

  6. Hi Grace --

    I am so disappointed not to uncover a rich and purpose-built language for scams. Those durn con men (and women.) WHY didn't they leave detailed, idiomatic diaries?

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  8. Thanks for the very useful vocabulary.

    It's hard not to have a soft spot for conmen. They're so clever. One of my favorites is Gregor Macgregor, who almost brought down the Bank of England in 1825. And a bit later, Lord Gordon Gordon, who conned Jay Gould (an admirable achievement).

    I can't help wondering if the Scots are particularly adept at this sort of knavery.

  9. Hi Lil --
    Y'know, I haven't written any Scotsman. Not one. Not even a minor minor character ...

  10. Sorry this is so late, but I thought it might, in the current meaning, amuse you.

    The OED CD has the wonderful ability to search by quotation date. I found a problem with several of the entries coming earliest in the alphabet: they're in current use with a different meaning. As in

    4.4 To divert the attention of any one from the facts at issue; to beguile, delude, {cheat}, deceive. (The usual sense in 17–18th c.) arch.

      1756 Burke Subl. & B. Wks. I. 155 Leave us in the dark, or, what is worse, amuse and mislead us by false lights.    1817 Cobbett Year's Resid. Amer. (1822) 230 It becomes the people of America to guard their minds against ever being, in any case, amused with names.

    I.II To {cheat}, juggle, bewilder, confound, foil. [Cf. F. beffler and bafouer.]

    †4.II.4 To hoodwink, gull, cheat. Obs.
     1726 De Foe Hist. Devil ii. viii. (1840) 292 He had not a mind to cheat or baffle the poor man.

  11. Thank ye so kindly. You've sent me some others. I'll sort them out and add to the posting ...



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