‘Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat.’ David Maurer The Big Con (1940)
‘Failing that, can the Great Exhibition/Festival UK include some of these absolute prize human exhibits? We could have a whole pavilion dedicated to Chancers, Chisellers and Chintz-grifters, and never have to leave a single street in Westminster to fill it.’ Marina Hyde Guardian 7 January 2022
It is true that google hits lie far from the essence of reliable data, but this is slang and if we require a barebones, broad-brush kind of statistic, then they serve us well. Take for instance, that currently popular term: grifter. Searching for its use in the UK over the last few years, shall we say post 16 June 2016, the search engine offers well over one million hits. Yet prior to that use outside America is almost nugatory, other than in US-based fiction of one sort or another. If, and here I hope for somewhat more reliable information, albeit infinitely less wide-ranging, you look at British use, it is, at least as recorded in GDoS, far and few between.
The term, losing its illustrative citations, looks like this:
1. (US Und., also grift) a confidence trickster; any form of non-violent criminal living primarily on his or her wits; also attrib. (recorded first use 1911)
2. (US Und.) a small-change swindler, thus any small-time gambler. (1917)
3. (US Und.) a thief. (1914)
4. a worker, a struggler. (1935)
5. (US campus) a scrounger, someone living off other people. (a.2000)
And as indicated by GDoS’s flagging system, it is clear that the term both in its earliest and subsequent uses has remained almost wholly transatlantic. A staple of pulp fiction or noir movies it has crossed the Pond only by hearsay. It simply hasn’t joined the world of British cant, i.e. criminal slang. The UK has an admirable range of equivalents, but grift has not been among them, other perhaps than among those who like to affect the linguistic stingy-brims, vines and heaters of American slang.
Its root senses emerge in the second decade of the 20th century and remain popular. Its etymological source is the verb grift, which starts life in 1905 meaning to steal, although the first use of its second sense, to work as a confidence trickster or petty thief and thus the noun grifting n., confidence trickery, swindling, has not yet been recorded before 1914 (included in a lexicon of criminal slang, it is defined unhelpfully as graft.). It is this sense that underlies the title of Jim Thompson’s 1960 novel (and Stephen Frears’ 1990 movie). The noun grift may be the verb’s source, but as things stand, its appearances are fractionally later. It’s initial use, pretty obsolete since 1960, is neutral: one’s job, though the assumption is that it tends to the criminal. Sense two, still flourishing, reflects any crime that depends not upon violence/coercion but on what David Maurer in his study of The Big Con (1940 and the basis of the 1973 hit movie The Sting) terms ‘lightness of touch and quickness of wit.’ Its variations are typically professional confidence trickery, pickpocketing, professional gambling and, ostensibly less venal, circus and carnival work. None of these, when carried out as they should be, require physical violence, let alone gunplay. With a definite article, one has the grift: the world of (non-violent) crime and thus the light-fingered and quick-brained villain who is on the grift. Used neutrally again, the occupations can be legit, and the form echoes racket another of slang’s terms for work that walks both sides of the legal street.
Given the longevity of grift’s primary interests, one might expect its origins to lie earlier. After all, slang and criminal cant has been throwing up synonyms for confidence trickery and the like from day one. The first words for conman were verser (they verse, or ‘pour out’ their seductive schemes) and rubber (who ‘rubs up’ against the sucker), both appearing around 1550 (although the ur-victim, the gullible buzzard, is found in the late 14th century and such naïves did not exist in a vacuum, factual or lexical). Alongside came the coney-catcher, where coney was literally a rabbit, and for the criminal a victim-in-waiting. (The term doubled as a prostitute; its alternative sexualised use was as the penis, but here the coney = cunt.) But as more than a century’s examples make clear, grift and its derivative are very late-comers to British shores.
Grift’s etymology is problematic. The current theory links it to the mid-19th century slang graft, which may in turn emerge from the Standard English term meaning to insert or fix in or upon something. In this case corruption and criminality, the fine-tuning of which is considered below. Alternatively, although GDoS – following the OED – has chosen to split the two senses, it may come another form of graft, a homonym meaning hard work, usually employing physical labour. This in turn may be linked to an earlier, presumably long unused sense of graft, referring to the depth of earth that may be thrown up at once with a spade. Either way, the criminal version is first recorded in 1865, whether referring to any form of illicit, underhand – but not necessarily illegal and actionable – money-making or to one’s criminal speciality. This graft can also be used of an easy job or sinecure, the world of corruption or the profits it generates, an act of theft (rather than pure trickery), and work, here in the sense of non-productive make-work, i.e. something that takes up or wastes time, and finally influence, often political.
As to geography, these are a mixed bunch. Those senses that focus on crime and corruption are usually coined in the States, and largely stay there, although the term has gradually made its way across the ocean. The non-criminal – i.e. work and influence – are mainly linked to the UK.
Whether English dialect’s grafted, ‘deeply impressed (with dirt), begrimed’ (EDD) plays a role is unknown. It might suggest some form of connection to the earth-turning spade. But one further use of graft is definitely linked to the UK and seems to have never left: the use of graft as a verb in sexual contexts. These – meaning either to cuckold or to have vaginal or anal intercourse – are based on the back-story of horns, the symbol of cuckoldry, and the male cuckolds who are forced to sport them. The link to graft comes because although the knee-jerk assumption would be to link adultery to horn, the penis (of the lover, presumably, rather than the hapless husband). This seems an error. The term apparently comes from an old German farming practice of grafting the spurs of a castrated cock on the root of the severed comb. These transplants would grow into horns, sometimes several inches long. The German word hahnreh or hahnrei, meaning cuckold, originally meant capon, a castrated cock. There is, unsurprisingly in so contentious a context, an alternative (and older) theory: this takes the posture of ‘missionary position’ intercourse, in which the man represented a head and the woman’s legs, spread and raised, were his horns. It is with this latter in mind that the literary publican Ned Ward wrote in his essay ‘The Dancing School’ (1700): ‘I should hate a Husband with horns, were they even of my own grafting’.
None of which has particularly changed, other than one thing: grifter, once so echt-American, has become a staple of British speech, at least as used to identify and, excoriate, on occasion even via sections of the usually partisan media, the current government and its profiteering outriders. Recent use has overtaken if not completely replaced the older sleaze, defined by the OED as ‘squalor; sordidness […] (something of) inferior quality or low moral standards’ and a back-formation of the 17th century sleazy, used of a material and denoting its lack of texture of substance. It was initially found in 1967, but gained traction in the ’80s when its use helped destroy the last Tory hegemony, passed from Margaret Thatcher to John Major and seen as increasingly corrupt as year followed year.
Grift, as noun or verb, and especially grifter (which adds the personal aspect that sleaze did not produce) are the terms of choice now, and the levels of corruption are seen as infinitely more grotesque, injurious to the country and unrestrainedly rewarding to its beneficiaries irrespective of which section of the Tory party they represent, or what level of pro-Brexit chicanery and calculated mendacity underlines their use. The only question is to what extent these self-serving cheats possess the traditional grifter’s skills, or whether cock-up is still over-riding conspiracy.
It isn’t merely the etymologies that are confused. The senses seem interwoven. The words grift and graft, grifter and grafter slither about like a con-man’s tale. None seem set in stone. If there is a difference then perhaps it is influenced by the ‘work’ element of graft. A degree of honest toil, of honour even. No trickery there, just hard grafting. It is perhaps for this reason that grifter has finally found a home in the UK. If there is hard graft to be found, it is strictly of the most self-serving of varieties. No sweat was broken during this self-indulgent project and these thieves, tearing at at each other as Brexit’s lies deflate, lack any vestige of honour.
But even that is debatable when a clown leads the gang. As a Raymond Chandler gunsel asks Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep: ‘Got a grift, brother — or just amusing yourself?’ Who can say, but eventually, as the departing clown car parps, sniggers and farts its way through the rubble, we shall see.