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Unpleasant People
Part 3: Swindler


By Anatoly Liberman

There are so many unpleasant people in the world! And the obscurity of the names by which they are known makes them even less attractive. Once again we will be dealing with relatively recent slang. The emergence of swindler in English does not predate the last decades of the 18th century (the first citation in the OED goes back to 1775). The word has an easily identifiable root. Old Engl. swind-an meant “waste away, languish; lose consciousness,” and the suffix –le is familiar from such verbs as babble, dabble, gaggle, scribble, and the rest. One of such verbs is dwindle, and swindle has even been suspected (wrongly) to be an alteration of it. In German we find schwindeln “feel giddy,” a grammatical analogue of swindle, and a verb without a suffix, namely verschwinden “disappear” (ver– is a prefix). The distant (Germanic) past of swindle and its kin won’t interest us at the moment, for we only want to know where the sense “cheat” came from; today swindle has nothing to do with losing consciousness, languishing, or disappearance. In English, swindler predates swindle (the verb is a so-called back formation from the noun), so that our search must concentrate on that noun.

German Schwindler means the same as Engl. swindler, and the relation between them has been the object of some debate. The best etymological dictionary of English was written by Walter W. Skeat (1882). The author of the great German etymological dictionary was Friedrich Kluge (1884). As we can see, the books appeared at almost the same time, but they had very different publishing histories. Skeat kept perfecting his work as long as he lived; its fourth edition came out in 1910, two years before his death. Kluge produced ten editions, and after him able successors began to enlarge and rewrite his dictionary. The latest edition to date is the 24th. By contrast, no one picked up where Skeat left off. The OED progressed slowly and became the main reference work for everyone interested in the history and origin of English words, but it is not an etymological dictionary, despite the splendid notes on etymology in every entry, and was never meant to be one. Every new reviser of “Kluge” (and what a wonderful family name he had: klug(e) means “clever”!) left a strong imprint on the original work. This is especially true of our contemporaries Walther Mitzka and Elmar Seebold. Below, I will quote, in my translation and with English glosses added, the relevant parts of the entry Schwindler from Kluge-Mitzka, the 20th edition, and Kluge-Seebold, the 24th edition.

Kluge-Mitzka: “Alongside the masculine noun Schwindel ‘dizziness, giddiness’, the verb schwindeln developed the sense ‘to deal rashly; to make impractical plans’. Later, Schwindler ‘fanatic’ (1691), Schwindelgeist ‘disposition for adventurous [or ‘fraudulent’?] enterprises’ (1752, Dresden; 1789), and politischer Schwindler ‘a cheating politician’ (1782) aligned themselves with it. When in 1762 German Jews settled in London, people called their shady dealings swindle and their perpetrators swindlers. In 1780 Schwindelei and in 1782 Schwindel ‘fraud in money exchange’ turned up in Hamburg and spread with numerous derivatives all over the country. Dutch zwendelen ‘to swindle’, zwendelaar ‘swindler’, and zwendelarij ‘swindling’, as well as Danish and Swedish svindel, are from German.” Let us note the following: the sense “cheat(ing)” originated in German, this sense goes back to the settlement of German Jews in London, “people” (das Volk dort, so obviously non-Jews) called shady dealing swindle, among the languages that borrowed the German word English is not mentioned, and 1762 is given as an important date for the sense development of the word under consideration. The last point is puzzling, and perhaps some of our readers will be able to shed light on it. Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Very few of them stayed in the country and worshiped secretly. Some returned to England only under Cromwell (who needed Jewish money) and after the Glorious Revolution, but the community remained tiny. Neither Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta nor Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice owes anything to personal observation (note the geography of the plays and compare the foreign protagonists with Dickens’s Fagin, a London fence). The “Jew Act” (officially known as The Jewish Naturalization Act) was passed in 1753. Although it did not produce significant demographic changes, it can be looked upon as a milestone in the history of the British Jewry. So why 1762?

Kluge-Seebold: “Schwindeln…., derived from schwinden ‘lose consciousness’, from which by back formation we have late Middle High German swindel ‘dizziness, giddiness’. In the 16th century, this meaning yielded ‘deceit’ via ‘confusion’, and the verb also began to mean ‘cheat’. The influence from Modern Engl. swindle is possible.” It is hard to believe that we are dealing with two versions of the same entry, but this is the way etymological dictionaries are revised. The most noticeable differences, if we disregard the sudden reference to “‘deceit’ via ‘confusion’,” are the absence of the Jewish factor and the possibility of Modern English influence. Incidentally, the OED makes no mention of Jews either. A short aside is needed here. Users of articles and books on etymology should treat statements about the Jewish roots of English slang with extreme caution. German owes many canting terms to Yiddish; in English, owing to the long absence of a Jewish community in post-1290 Britain, the number of such words is much smaller. The center of dissemination of Yiddish words and expressions in Modern English is not London or Liverpool, but New York. Also, with the rarest exceptions, the authors of popular and even scholarly publications who mention Yiddish do not know the language and have a vague idea of its variants (though they often have a good command of German) and depend on secondary sources, which are often unreliable with regard to Yiddish. Finally, there is a time-honored tradition to trace to Yiddish all obscure English slang words for fraud, money, and crime. This tradition is based on nothing but prejudice.

Kluge first believed that swindler originated in England and became known in Germany thanks to the contacts between English merchants and Hamburg (those who have read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks will easily visualize such contacts). He relied on relative chronology, but he was unaware of the earliest occurrences of Schwindler in German. Later (for example, in the 10th edition of his dictionary) he chose a more guarded formulation and admitted that the situation was not completely clear. Seebold returned to Kluge’s position. Here then are the facts to be taken into consideration. In German, Schwindler is connected with a verb that has existed since antiquity, while the 18th-century English noun swindler had no environment, no word from which it could have been derived. Consequently, swindler is almost certainly not a native English word, and this is why Old Engl. swindan is of no interest to us in this context. Two contradictory pieces of evidence exist: German Schwindler with a meaning close to the present one undoubtedly existed before 1775, but, as undoubtedly, it was known so little that the German authors who heard Engl. swindler at the end of the 18th century had to explain it to their readers and took it for a specifically English designation of a crook. What happened in the seventeen-seventies or seventeen-eighties that made the word popular? This question remains unanswered, but the impulse may indeed have come from England, though not from English. And here we return to Yiddish. It is probable that swindler had enough currency among Jewish merchants in London to be picked up by their German partners, who, quite naturally, understood it and pronounced it as Schwindler (whatever the London Yiddish pronunciation of it may have been). In concentrating on Hamburg as the town from which Schwindler spread to the rest of Germany, Kluge may have been right. Very soon swindler also became a household word in England. For some reason, it happened “suddenly,” but such is the way of all slang.

Anatoly_libermanAnatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    I make no claim about “swindlers” other than that uses can be found in London newspapers from at least as early as 1771:
    General Evening Post (London, England), Thursday, October 24, 1771; Issue 5934, page 1, col.2:
    …There is at this time a set of execrable villains, who are known by the name of Swindlers; they live about the neighbourhood of Long-acre in different houses; they have entered into a pretended partnership, and mean to be bankrupts in a few months….

  2. Stephen Goranson

    Though I’m no expert in legal citations, here is an apparent 1731 recording of “scoundrel,” which, if found valid (can someone check?), is much earlier than any mentioned above.

    William Kelynge’s reports in Chancery: in the 4th and 5th years of George II. [a case brought in 1731 and ended in 1732]

    King [Rex in the reprint] versus Pownell, 5 Geo. II. B. R.
    Information was moved for against the Defendant for sending the Prosecutor a Letter wherein were these words, viz. You are a Scoundrel, and defrauded the King of his Duty, I will prick you to the Heart, and call you to an Account….


  3. […] and in the US), entered the English language in the 1760s probably as a borrowing from Yiddish. (See a summary of the debate here. When it first came into use, the word had a much narrower meaning in bankruptcy […]

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