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.
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.