Words on the Grift: Our Favorite Ways of Saying ‘Con Artist’

Thirty years ago on this day, classic con artist flick The Grifters was released. We love everything about the film, but perhaps especially the lingo. It’s inspired us to take a look at some fun ways to say grifter.

On the grift

The word grifter is from about 1915, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and seems to come from grafter, someone who grafts or makes money dishonestly. Graft meaning dishonest gain is originally U.S. slang, says the OED, originating around 1865. The origin is uncertain, and might either come from graft meaning “job” or “a small shoot or scion of a tree inserted in another tree as the stock which is to support and nourish it.”


Before you swindle a mark, you’ve got to catch one first. The term cony-catcher is from about 1591, says the OED, where cony refers to a rabbit or rabbit skin. (For more on rabbit words, check out this post.) Gull-catcher is from about 1616, namely Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Here comes my noble gull-catcher.” A gull is a person who’s easily tricked. 

Con words

To con someone, meaning to swindle them by first winning their confidence or trust, is from about 1896, says the OED. Before that was confidence man (1849), confidence game (1856), and confidence trick (1884). The verb form of confidence (“They are ‘confidenced’ of what money they may have about them”) is from about 1875, becoming shortened (“Don’t try to con me with no such talk”) in 1896. Meanwhile con artist is from about 1878 and con man from 1889.

Batfowlers, flimflammers, and illywhackers, oh my!

Then there are the con words that are just fun to say. Before batfowler referred to a fraudster, it meant someone who practiced batfowling (natch). So what the heck is batfowling? It’s an old-timey way of hunting birds: the batfowler would hold some kind of light, and beat the bushes or trees (perhaps with a bat) where their prey roosted. The disturbed birds would fly out toward the light and be caught in nets. This sense of batfowling is from about 1440, says the OED, while the swindling sense is from 1602.

Flimflammer is from about 1881 and comes from flimflam meaning nonsense or humbug. Gazumper is from about 1932 while gazump meaning to swindle or cheat is UK slang from the late 1920s with an unknown origin. 

Illywhacker is an Australian slang term possibly from the 1940s. One theory for its origin is that it comes from eeler-spee or eeler-speeler, pig Latin versions of spieler, a cheat or sharper. Whack the illy, to perform small cons, might be a back-formation of illywhacker. Illywhacker is also the name of a 1985 novel by Australian author Peter Carey.

Want more tricky words? Check out this swell mob, these scofflaws, scallywags, rascals, and rogues, this criminal element, and these unsavory types.

Happy National Cookie Day! Sink Your Teeth into Six Cookie Idioms

Every day is National Cookie Day in our book, but today, and every Dec. 4, it’s official. While there are tons of awesome cookie nameshamantasch, snickerdoodle, and stroopwafel, just to name a few — we thought we’d take a bite out of a brief history of cookie idioms.

An attractive lady

“That girl friend of yours is a cookie—hey, what?”

Collier’s: The National Weekly, March 6, 1920

While the word cookie originated in the early-to-mid 18th century — it first referred to a “baker’s plain bun” in Scotland, says the the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), before meaning something sweeter — the first figurative sense wasn’t until about 1920. This earliest citation, according to the OED, was in the above quote in Collier’s, an American magazine founded in 1888 by Peter Collier, an Irish-born publisher.

Not one in a million

“There are always ‘cookie cutter’ tendencies among us. One of these this year is the caracul trimmed coat which every other woman in New York wears.”

Chicago Sunday Tribune, Feb. 26, 1922

Cookie cutter referring to a device used to cut cookie dough into uniform shapes is from about 1864, says the OED. The adjective meaning seemingly mass produced and therefore lacking originality is from at least the early 1920s.

Cookie tossing

“An hour later, according to the log, ‘McFie shot his cookies’, the only sea-sickness on the voyage.”

Los Angeles Times, Aug. 4, 1927

The roaring ‘20s gives us another memorable cookie saying. This colorful way of saying to vomit is a North American slang term, says the OED, and specifically, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, originating in the North and North Midland regions of the U.S. as college slang.

Smart and tough

“We’re a couple of smart cookies, hey?”

Oakland Tribune, June 4, 1939

While we’re now probably more likely to say someone is a tough or smart cookie, this sense started with no modifier, simply referring to a person with generally positive qualities, says the OED. The earliest citation of this sense is in an Oct. 7, 1928 issue of the Chicago Tribune: “What a swell bunch of cookies you turned out to be.” The earliest reference for smart cookie is in the 1939 quote above while tough cookie is from an October 1942 issue of The American Mercury magazine: “Just about the toughest cookie ever born.”

Que sera sera

“From then on, that’s the way the cooky crumbled. I enjoyed having good ratings, but I didn’t enjoy the viciousness of the railbirds’ thrusts at Berle.”

I Call on Phil Silvers,” Saturday Evening Post, Sept. 7, 1957

According to the OED, the above quote is the earliest recorded usage of this idiom (uttered by comedian Phil Silvers) but was probably in use before this.

Computer cookies

“If cookies are handy for Web shoppers, site developers, advertisers and trackers, they are irritating and intrusive to many users who do not want to leave behind a digital fingerprint.”

Anne Eisenberg, Scientific American, October 1996

This computing term originated in the mid-1980s, says the OED. Its earliest usage is from a 1987 electronic text: “The proposed procedures require each association to be assigned a random session key, which is provided by an authentication server called the Cookie Jar.” The term may have been originated by programmer Lou Montulli while at Netscape, coming from another computing term, magic cookie.

Want more magical cookie words? Check out this list.

Happy St. Andrew’s Day! 7 Bonnie Scots Words to Use More Often

Photo by Rhys Asplundh (CC BY 2.0)

St. Andrew’s Day isn’t just the feast day of Andrew the Apostle, it’s Scotland’s official national day. What better time to share seven bonnie Scots words that should be used more often?


“The old are crabbit, and they do be thinking more of draining a field, or of the price of flax, nor of the pain and delights of love.”

Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne, The Wind Bloweth, 1922

Why say crabby when you can say crabbit? Named for the crooked movements of the crab, this word first came about in the 15th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).


“‘Mah dear wumman,’ he said patiently, ‘will ye kindly shut yer geggie?’”

W. Miller, Scottish Short Stories, 1985

The next time you want to tell someone to shut their piehole, you can say, “Shut yer geggie!” instead. This slang term for someone’s mouth is specifically from Glasgow, says the OED, and might be related to geggie or geg hole which, in the game of marbles, is the hole “into which the marbles are rolled,” or else the Scots regional term geg or gaig, which refers to a cleft or crack. The OED’s earliest citation is from the above quote in 1985.

An older meaning of geggie, also according to the OED, is a traveling theatrical show, which come from the word gag meaning lines or jokes not in a script but improvised by the performer.


“The very smell of the dog was couthie in his nose.”

George Douglas Brown, The House with the Green Shutters

Couthie meaning kindly, neighborly, or familiar comes from couth, a backformation of uncouth. While uncouth now means clumsy or unrefined, its obsolete definition is strange, foreign, or unfamiliar.


“But I mind, when I was a gilpy of a lassock, seeing the Duke, that was him that lost his head at London.”

Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality

This term for a “frolicsome young fellow … roguish boy [or] lively young girl” might be an alteration of galopin, according to the OED. A galopin refers to a page or errand-boy.


“There are quite a number who consider it more fantoosh to do their shopping in Perth.”

The People’s Journal (Dundee), Nov. 29, 1947

Fantoosh is often used disparagingly, says the OED, to mean fancy, showy, or stylish in an ostentatious or pretentious way. It’s probably a borrowing “by Scottish soldiers in France during the First World War,” coming from the French slang term, fantoche, which refers to a military uniform “that does not conform to the usual regulations,” and by extension describes something fantastical or eccentric.


“Are ye a’ cleared kelty aff?—Fill anither.”

Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy

You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Marion Ravenwood and her drinking competitor turn over their shot glasses after they toss back their liquor? That’s a kelty. This shouldn’t-be-obsolete term is believed to be named for a Scottish laird named Keltie who was “famous for this drinking powers,” says the OED.


“One item he could not do without was his wrought iron sitooterie, an arched garden arbor lined with a pair of benches.”

Wendi Winters, “Home of the Week: Professor’s Ginger Cove home a lesson plan for style and comfort,” Capital Gazette, Jan. 29, 2016

The fun-to-say sitooterie refers to “an area where people can sit outside,” says the OED, like a conservatory or gazebo. An earlier and now obsolete meaning is a “secluded area within a building where people can sit apart from others.” The word is a blend of sit, the Scots variant of out, and the suffix ery. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1920: “The Reid Hall was suitably rigged up in unwonted ‘braws’, the ‘Sitooterie’ especially being voted a great success.”

Want more Scottish stuff? Check out these lists, Under the Kilt and Scots Words.

Happy National Homemade Bread Day! Celebrate with Seven Slices of Baking Lingo

Bread is already pretty awesome, but there’s something extra awesome about bread that’s homemade. We’re glad there’s a day that celebrates it (every Nov. 17 in case you’re marking your carb calendars) and gives us an excuse to explore our favorite baking lingo.


“Bread baking,” Anders Zorn (1889)

“It is to the gluten of flour that its property of panification, or bread-making, is due.”

Charles Alexander Cameron, The Stock-Feeder’s Manual: The Chemistry of Food in Relation to the Breeding and Feeding of Live Stock, 1868

If you want to get formal, you can call breadmaking panification. The word is a borrowing from French, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and first appeared in English in 1781. It ultimately comes from the Latin word panis, which means “bread.”


“Charity bake off for WSPA,” Design Bridge (CC BY-ND 2.0)

“In a grand final bake-off at the Waldorf-Astoria, Pillsbury Mills will award $150,000 in prizes.”

Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press, Dec. 1, 1949

The above is the earliest citation of bake-off, a cooking competition, according to the OED. It comes from cook-off, which originated in the 1930s. Bake-offs and cook-offs usually involve amateur competitors. 


“In the last grueling months of the election, I’d retreat from the political chaos to the sanctuary of my kitchen, where I’d bake batch after batch of muffins.”

Jean Fain, “To Relieve Post-Election Stress, Bake And Bake Again,” NPR, Nov. 18, 2016

A batch is a quantity produced from one baking and probably comes from the Old English word meaning “to bake.” In fact the original meaning of batch is the process of baking, according to the OED.


“Yeast bread dough after proving for 40 minutes,” ElinorD (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Proofing is a term used by serious bread bakers. It’s the final stage before baking, when the bread dough is left to rise.”

Ellie Walker-Arnott, “‘The Great British Bake Off’ glossary: from crème pat to soggy bottoms,” Time Out London, Aug. 25, 2016

The proof is in the rising. To proof one’s dough is to aerate it or let it rise by some yeast action before baking. This sense of proof first appeared in English in 1875, says the OED.

windowpane test

“The windowpane test is one good indicator for whether your dough is ready to become warm, delicious bread.”

Stephanie Lee, “Use the Windowpane Test to Tell If Your Dough Is Properly Kneaded,” Lifehacker, Dec. 15, 2016

To perform the windowpane test, you’ll want to pull a window, that is take a small ball of dough and “pull into a thin, see-through membrane without it tearing.”


“His improperly baked bread is dunch.”

Casual Essays of the Sun, 1905

Dunch is an old term that describes bread that hasn’t risen or wasn’t baked properly. Also the bread itself, dunch was a regional term used in southern England and later in Newfoundland, says the OED. The earliest recorded usage is in dunch dumpling, “a plain, hard dumpling made of flour and water.”


“They are also baked so they touch each other, forming a kissing crust.”

Fraser Wright, “The history of morning rolls, including a recipe for making your own,” March 24, 2016

Another old-timey term, kissingcrust refers to “an overhanging edge of the upper crust of a loaf, that touches another loaf while baking.” The OED calls it “farmer slang” and says it’s from about 1708.

Craving more bread more? Check out this list as well as this one.

These Sayings are the Cat’s Meow: Our Favorite Feline Phrases and Idioms

It’s one of our favorite days of the year: National Cat Day! Not only do we think kitties are just purrfect, we also love those whiskery words and feline phrases. Here’s a brief history of cat idioms and where they might come from.

16th century: Kings, care, and the cover of darkness

“Two Children Teasing a Cat,” Annibale Carracci, 1587-88

Cats have minced their way through many a proverb since at least the 1500s. A cat may look at a king is an early one. From about 1546, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it means that there are certain things an inferior might do even in the presence of a superior.

Care killed the cat is from around the same time. Here “care” means worry or sorrow, says The Phrase Finder, so the proverb seems to mean that worry or sorrow would kill even a creature with nine lives — in other words, a cat. Curiosity killed the cat came later, around 1898.

The saying that all cats are gray (in the dark) is from about 1550, says the OED, and means that under certain circumstances, distinguishing qualities between people or things become unimportant.

17th century: Raining and swinging

“A cat and a dog fighting over fowl, a column with draped curtain and coastal landscape beyond,” David de Coninck, 1636-1699

The phrase to rain cats and dogs goes all the way back to at least 1661, says the OED. The Online Etymology Dictionary says it probably comes from cat-and-dog meaning inharmonious.

If you live a tiny space, you could say there’s not enough room to swing a cat, which is from about 1665, again according to the OED.

18th century: Bags, bells, and beaming

“Spring Play in a Tang Garden,” 18th Century

Revealed a secret? Then you’ve let the cat out of the bag. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this phrase is attested from 1760 and probably comes from the French expression acheter chat en poche, “buy a cat in a bag.” This is in contrast with the saying buy a pig in a poke, that is to buy something without looking at it or knowing its true value. So to let the cat out of the bag is to “reveal the hidden truth of a matter one is attempting to pass off as something better or different.”

To bell the cat, meaning to take on a perilous task on behalf of a group, may come from a late 14th century fable about mice belling a cat, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. And while we might think the saying to grin like a Cheshire cat comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was published in 1865, the saying is attested from 1770. However, what the connection is between the English county of Cheshire, grinning, and cats is unclear.

19th century: Skin, tongues, cowards, and copiers

“My Wife’s Lovers,” Carl Kahler, 1893

Poor kitties. So far they’ve been killed by both care and curiosity, swung, and put in bags. By the 1840s, there was also more than one way to skin them, which of course means there’s more than one way to do something.

Cat got your tongue? you might say to someone on the quiet side. While the OED’s earliest citation is from 1911, The Phrase Finder’s is from 1859. However, why a cat would have one’s tongue is unclear.

By 1871, a timid person might be called a fraidy-cat, perhaps from the puss’s practice of leaping and scattering when startled. The term scaredy-cat was scared up a bit later: in 1906. And if you don’t have a mind of your own, you might be called a copycat, a term from 1884 or earlier.

1920s: Cat phrases are the bee’s knees

Ad for the 1926 Paramount film The Cat’s Pajamas

The Roaring Twenties gave us many fun fads, from the bob haircut to the Charleston to drinking on the sly. Another one was animal-themed nonsense phrases that described something excellent. As per the OED, cat’s meow is from 1921 while cat’s whiskers and cat’s pajamas are from 1923 and 1925, respectively. An non-excellent cat phrase from 1928 is to look or feel like something the cat dragged in.

1980s: Herding and more swinging

The phrase herding cats — trying to control something unwieldy — is from the mid-1980s. The OED’s earliest citation is from 1986 while other sources mention a slightly earlier one from 1985. The saying was made even more popular by a commercial from 2000.

Reminiscent of the 17th-century phrase not enough room to swing a cat is the more macabre can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something there are too many of. From a Jan. 22, 2018 article in NBC Montana: “In California you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Tesla.” World Wide Words says the phrase is from the late 1980s.

Want more animal words and phrases? Check out our posts on regional slang terms for dogs, linguistic (and literal) animal blends, and how to speak rabbit.

Twitchers, Megas, and Life Lists: A Brief Guide to Birdwatching Lingo

“Birdwatching in Panama” by Alex Proimos (CC BY 2.0)

Avian celebration is definitely not for the birds. There are no fewer than four days that fete our feathered friends: National Bird Day from the Avian Welfare Coalition on Jan. 5; World Migratory Bird Day from the Environment of the Americas on the second Saturday in May in the U.S. and Canada and the second Saturday in October in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean; and finally Bird Day on May 4 as established in 1894 by Charles Almanzo Babcock, a superintendent of schools in Oil City, Pa.

Whichever day you choose to honor these winged creatures, we hope you enjoy these birdwatching terms.


Those who practice ornithoscopy have a few different names. Birder is American English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), first appearing in a 1945 issue of, appropriately enough, Audubon Magazine: “As a birder and a soldier, I’ve wandered up and down the country.”

Twitcher is a British English term that came about later and refers specifically to a birdwatcher “whose main aim is to make sightings of rare birds,” says the OED, often traveling “great distances to do so.” It might also mean an “enthusiastic or obsessive birdwatcher.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation from a 1974 article in The Guardian: “An exhausted North American spotted sandpiper..has become the latest target for the ornithological ‘tick-hunters’ or ‘twitchers’ of Britain.” As for twitcher’s origin, it might come from “the nervous excitement of a birdwatcher.” To twitch is to spot or seek a rare bird.

Or stringers and lists

If someone calls you a stringer, watch out: it might be the worst insult in birding. A stringer is someone who not only often misidentifies birds, they add such mistaken identities to their life list, a record of all the species a birder has seen in their lifetime.

A correctly identified species seen for the first time by someone keeping a life list is a lifer, which can also refer to the sighting itself. A regular addition to a life list is a tick., which the OED defines as “a ticked item on a list, esp. a list of birds to be observed.”

While it’s not clear where stringer comes from, life list dates back to 1900, lifer to 1958, and tick to 1975, all according to the OED. 

Birdwatching hits and misses

Want to attract a little bird’s attention? You might make a noise like pish. Just miss seeing a rare bird? You’ve dipped or dipped out. Meanwhile, the just-missed bird is a dip. Someone else see your dip and tell you about it? They’ve gripped or gripped off

The birds themselves

Of course the birds themselves have nicknames as well. A common species might be referred to as a peep or LBJ, which stands for “little brown job,” while a BOP is a bird of prey. Rare birds might be called mega, mega-find, mega-rarity, and mega-tick.

Battle of the birdwatchers

If you haven’t already noticed, birdwatching can get pretty competitive. Hence, the big year, an informal competition brought to you by the American Birding Association in which twitchers see who can observe “the largest number of species of birds within a single calendar year and within a specific geographical area.” It’s also the inspiration for a book and a movie.

Want more bird words? Check out these singular bird names and these “wirds” of a feather.

Happy World Elephant Day! Celebrate with Seven Elephant-Related Words and Phrases

We hope you didn’t forget — it’s World Elephant Day! Observed every Aug. 12, this special day seeks to raise awareness about the protection and preservation of this massive mammal. We’re celebrating the way we like best: by exploring some elephant words and idioms.

elephant in the room

“England enter the Guinness Six Nations with a united squad after addressing any grievances over Saracens’ salary cap scandal, described by Jonny May as the ‘elephant in the room.’”

Duncan Bech, “England players address ‘elephant in the room’ as Saracens scandal is discussed,” PA Media, Jan. 24, 2020

This phrase meaning an obvious problem or issue that’s being ignored or avoided might come from a 1984 book title, An Elephant in the Living Room: A Leader’s Guide for Helping Children of Alcoholics, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

An earlier sense (the “type of something obvious and incongruous, esp. (in Logic and Philosophy) in discussions of statements which may or may not correspond to observable facts”) is from a 1935 book American Philosophy Today and Tomorrow: “It is going beyond observation to assert there is not an elephant in the room, for I cannot observe what is not.”

white elephant

“But the project’s still a white elephant. The elevated tram from the Willets Park station near Citi Field to the airport doesn’t create a one-seat ride to LaGuardia.”

Post Editorial Board, “AOC is right: LaGuardia AirTrain is a worthless white elephant,” New York Post, Jan. 14, 2020

A white elephant is a burdensome possession — basically something that yields very little return on investment. The OED’s earliest citation is from a Dec. 16, 1721 issue of London Journal: “In short, Honour and Victory are generally no more than white Elephants; and for white Elephants the most destructive Wars have been often made.”

As for the origin of the phrase, one theory says it comes from a story about a king in Thailand who would gift white elephants in order to bankrupt his enemies. However, there might be no such story as, according to Thai historian Rita Ringis, white elephants would never be considered a burden by Thai monarchs and in fact are a symbol of good fortune.

Regardless of where the phrase came from, during the winter holidays many of us are victims participants in white elephant gift exchanges, otherwise known as Yankee swaps, during which unwanted or ridiculous presents are foisted on others in exchange for something else unwanted or ridiculous.

pink elephant

“In the film, the circus’ water bucket becomes tainted with Champagne, causing both Dumbo and his rodent sidekick to see visions of terrifying pink elephants engaged in trippy shapeshifting, morphing into musical instruments, and forming a giant super-elephant made up of elephant heads.”

Sarah Baird, “The Boozy Underbelly of Saturday Morning Cartoons,” Eater, Aug. 10, 2015

To see pink elephants means to hallucinate from drugs or alcohol. The OED’s earliest citation is from an April 1900 issue of Blue Pencil Magazine: “She don’t stand for this booze business, and I’m opposed to it myself. D’ye see them pink elephants running up my pants legs?” Perhaps the most famous hallucinatory pink elephants are from Disney’s 1941 animated film, Dumbo.

to see the elephant

“It is not positively an eternal Gun-Cotton-dom which they crave, but simply to see the elephant — to have a great time, and retire.”

Seeing the Elephant,” The New York Times, March 1, 1861

To see the elephant is an old-timey way of saying to see the world or get experience in life. It originated in American English, says the OED, perhaps around 1835: “That’s sufficient, as Tom Haynes said when he saw the elephant.”

elephant joke

“How do you get six elephants in a Volkswagen? Three in the front and three in the back. This fad began in 1960, when Wisconsin toy maker L.M. Becker Co. released a set of 50 elephant-joke trading cards.” 

Bathroom Readers Institute, “Why the Chicken Actually Crossed the Road—and the History Behind 9 More Jokes,” Reader’s Digest, Nov. 1, 2018

Elephant jokes refer to a series of riddles involving, you guessed it, elephants, which was popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. The trading cards mentioned in the quote seem to have been released in 1960 by now seemingly defunct toy manufacturer L. M. Becker. The OED’s earliest citation for elephant joke is from the 1968 comedy film Don’t Just Stand There starring Robert Wagner and Mary Tyler Moore: “Well, hell, do isometric exercises, tell elephant jokes, write postcards.”


“Despite how easy it is to snap those all-pervasive self portraits, the short distance from the camera combines with the wide-angle lens to puff the proboscis.”

Leslie Katz, “Yes, selfies do make your nose look bigger,” CNET, March 1, 2018

Before proboscis jokingly referred to a person’s nose, especially of Cyrano proportions, it meant an elephant’s trunk. Ultimately from the Greek proboskis, meaning “elephant’s trunk” but literally translating as “means for taking food,” the word’s elephant sense is from the late 16th century while the human one is from 1631. From The New Inn: Or, The Light Heart by Ben Johnson: “No flattery for’t: No lick-foote, paine of loosing your proboscis.”


“The bill takes aim at a problem of mammoth proportions: up to a third of the world’s food is wasted, much of it rotting in landfills.”

Lindsay Abrams, “France’s bold attack on food waste: Law will prohibit supermarkets from trashing unsold food,” Salon, May 22, 2015

Mammoth meaning a prehistoric elephant-like mammal is Russian in origin, coming from mamant, which probably comes from probably an Ostyak word meaning “earth” since the creature’s remains were dug up from the ground in Siberia. Its first recorded use in English is from 1706: “The old Siberian Russians affirm that the Mammuth is very like the Elephant.” 

It was around 1801 that mammoth came to mean huge or gigantic. In a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote: “I recieved [sic] … a present of a quarter of a Mammoth-veal which at 115. days old weighed 438. lb.”

Check out this list for even more elephantine words.